Princeton Pro-Life Sponsors Talk on Euthanasia and Terri Schiavo

By Margaret Zagroba, Vice-President of Princeton Pro-Life
March, 2005

On Wednesday, March 2, the Princeton University community witnessed two powerful arguments against euthanasia in a talk sponsored by Princeton Pro-Life entitled "Euthanasia, Judicial Homicide, and Terri Schiavo." Professor Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of South Carolina, discussed the reasons why euthanasia is wrong on a philosophical level, linking support of euthanasia with a faulty understanding of the human person. Following Tollefsen's remarks was a talk by Bobby Schindler, who spoke of his own personal and legal battle to save his sister Terri Schiavo.

Tollefsen identified three grounds on which euthanasia is typically justified. First, there is the emotional appeal of seeing a person in great pain, and the consequent desire to want to relieve his suffering. Second, there is the fact that, unlike abortion, euthanasia is typically (though not always) done with the patient's consent. Third, people who practice euthanasia take advantage of a faulty distinction between actively killing someone and merely "letting them die."

Underlying all these arguments, however, is the implicit assumption that human life is not intrinsically valuable, but is only worthy insofar as it helps one achieve some other goal, such as happiness. This is dualist: it thinks of the person as wholly abstracted from the body that he inhabits. If dualism is true, then the immaterial person can do anything he wants with his body, including destroy it through euthanasia. If, however, the person is a psychosomatic unity, then human life is an intrinsic good, and it is always morally wrong to end an innocent human life, even if the life is one’s own.

Schindler began his presentation with a moving video chronicling Terri’s life and the legal battles he and his family have faced since Terri’s collapse in 1990. He related how Terri’s husband Michael Schiavo has systematically neglected his wife, and refused to give her the proper medical care she needs. Her family must get permission from the local police before they can even visit her. They are not permitted to bring flowers into her room, or play her favorite music. When a priest tried to administer Holy Communion to Terri, Mr. Schiavo reprimanded him and threatened him with arrest. Terri’s family wants nothing more that to take Terri home and care for her, but since her husband has full custody, they are powerless.

Mr. Schiavo’s case is based on the flimsiest of evidence. He claims that Terri once related verbally to him that she would not want to live if she was incapacitated and put on a feeding tube. Despite the fact that this is hearsay, and that Terri never expressed such a wish to any of her own family, a Florida judge determined that Mr. Schiavo’s testimony alone was enough to send Terri to her death through the removal of her feeding tube. Mr. Schindler described the case as a “judicial homicide,” since the arbitrary decision of a hostile judge is enough to send Terri to her death.

Even though Terri’s story is deeply powerful, Mr. Schindler did not just dwell on his personal story, but explored the implications for society at large. He said, “Our society has moved from a culture that values sanctity of life to one that values quality of life.” Slowly and insidiously, the idea has crept into the American mindset that the value of some peoples’ lives don’t outweigh the costs, and that these lives can be terminated at the will of another.

Mr. Schindler’s story brought home the point for all the audience members that this case is about far more than his sister’s life, as important as her life is. Her murder would set both a legal and a cultural precedent that human life is to be valued for its utility rather than its intrinsic worth, and would hasten the arrival of what John Paul II has called a “culture of death.” Almost everyone has a friend or relative who is either disabled, or suffering from disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Will one day a court be able to decide whether our loved ones can live or die?

Hope is not lost, however. Currently the date set for removal of Terri’s feeding tube is March 18, and the Schindler family has six legal appeals pending in a final attempt to save her. There is legislation pending in both Congress and the Florida State legislature which would be able to save Terri, if they are passed in time. The audience was clearly deeply moved by Mr. Schindler story, and one of the first questions asked after the talk was, “How can we help Terri’s cause?” Mr. Schindler encouraged us to contact our congressmen and lawmakers, and expressed gratitude for the recent outpouring of support for his sister, coming recently from even the Vatican itself.

The entire evening was a compelling witness for the pro-life cause. Mr. Schindler presented a powerful emotional appeal. Mr. Tollefsen reminded the audience, however, that the emotional objections to euthanasia are insufficient, but that euthanasia must and can be shown to be wrong on a completely rational and rigorous philosophical level. He also noted that many pro-lifers are far more passionate about ending abortion than euthanasia, but that it is essential for our cause to defend human life at all stages, including its end. Audience members thus left with a clearer understanding of the moral objections to euthanasia, a better knowledge of the Schiavo case, which has often been distorted by a biased media, and renewed awareness of the importance of defending human life, especially of the most innocent and defenseless.