Terri Schiavo: America’s Lost Hope, by Djana Milton

Terri Schiavo, a woman who collapsed at 26 and suffered severe brain damage, is dead because her husband and our justice system determined that her life wasn’t worth living.

Many of us never seriously contemplate our own deaths, especially at such a young age. I’ve often said I wouldn’t want to live the way Terri lived, but such remarks are emotionally-charged and don’t necessarily reflect my wishes.

I will state for the record that I don’t want to be unplugged from life support based on my reaction to someone else’s condition. I don’t necessarily want to remain on life support for the long term, either. The decision requires careful reflection on the physical effect the condition would have on me, and the emotional and financial effects it would have on my family. It should not be made lightly or casually.

While it’s possible that Terri thought about comas, brain damage and tubes and knew precisely what she wanted if something were to happen, she obviously didn’t feel strongly enough to write it down. Consequently, her fate rested on a husband so profoundly devoted to her that he fathered two children with a woman he’d been seeing for years as she lay bed-ridden. Would Terri have wanted her husband to get on with his life? Perhaps, but I doubt she thought his “closure” would come at the expense of her life.

The fight to kill Terri has been a low mark for the American justice system. We’ve arrived at a point where we feel empowered to decide whose life is worthy and whose is not. Was it OK to kill Terri because she couldn’t feed herself or because of the degree of brain damage? What if her brain had been less damaged, but she still couldn’t feed herself? What if she could feed herself but was equally brain-damaged?

These questions lead us down a slippery slope as we decide who lives and who dies. Arbitrary determinations about worthiness are dangerous. I’ve read article after article about Terri’s “vegetative state.” Dehumanizing and convenient. When we compare a person to a plant, it’s much easier to treat them as a plant. Ending a life becomes nothing more than ripping its sustaining roots from the ground.

The biggest atrocity in this tragic case is how Terri Schiavo was killed. In many states, criminals who’ve committed horrendous crimes no longer swing from the gallows. That form of capital punishment has been deemed unnecessarily cruel. In Terri’s case, however, slow starvation wasn’t considered unnecessarily cruel. Her family – those who loved her and wanted her to live even though she couldn’t return that love – stood vigil for days as she faded away.

Ironically, had Terri been sentenced to death for a crime, she’d have been spared a “cruel and unusual” death. Her execution would have been swift. Instead, she was forced to suffer a slow death. I don’t believe Michael Schiavo could have truly loved his wife and allowed her to starve to death at the same time. It is not humanly possible.

Before his own recent death, Pope John Paul II called America a culture of death. Since Terri Schiavo’s case entered the American consciousness, we have witnessed the fervor with which her husband, the American Civil Liberties Union and much of the American media advocated for her death. The Pope’s words ring loudly, clearly and true.

America has always been a beacon of light for the rest of the world, a nation that values life above all else and guarantees the pursuit of that life. Yet with each innocent one ended in the battle to kill the weak and voiceless, we move farther away from the light that shines for the rest of the world.

One need only look to history to understand that the darkness awaiting our country on its current path will prove difficult, if not impossible, to escape.

Djana Milton is a member of the national advisory council of the black leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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