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Ordinary or Extraordinary Means:
The Sad Case of Terri Schiavo

In recent weeks, a disabled woman was starved to death in southern Florida, the victim of a legal system that permitted her husband to withdraw her feeding tube. Despite the efforts of her parents (and of many others) to save her, the final order to remove the feeding tube came several days before Easter, and approximately a week and a half later, Terri died of hunger and thirst.

Terri’s parents used every legal means possible to prevent the withdrawal of the feeding tube, and succeeded in obtaining favorable rulings for several years. They begged and pleaded with her husband Michael Schiavo — even as they fought him in court — to let them have custody of their daughter, leaving him with no further obligations to Terri. At one point, a wealthy individual offered one million dollars to Mr. Schiavo if he would relinquish his legal rights and let Terri’s parents give her the care they so desperately wanted her to have. Even the United States Congress jumped into the fray and passed a special law, enabling her and others in like condition to have an appeal in federal court. All to no avail.

It is agreed that ordinary means must be used to preserve life, and that extraordinary means may be used. Once a person elects to use the extraordinary means, he is not to be denied. No argument here. The dispute was whether Terri’s feeding tube was ordinary means or not. On the one hand it was argued that God never intended for humans to be fed that way, and hence it would amount to extraordinary means, especially if done for a long period of time. On the other hand, if extraordinary means is defined as treatment that is very expensive or very painful in nature, then Terri’s feeding tube was not extraordinary. Other than the care she needed in her disabled condition, there was no great expense involved, and certainly no accompanying pain in the use of the feeding tube. Furthermore, if the invasiveness of the feeding tube was the factor that made it extraordinary, then what about insulin injections for diabetics? Are we to say that this is extraordinary means, and therefore may be stopped at any time? If the answer is “yes,” then it becomes impractical or impossible to define what ordinary medical care is.

It is certain that Terri was not at death’s door. On the contrary, with proper therapy, there was hope that she would regain some of her mental faculties. According to various reports on her condition, she could smile and respond in other ways to those around her. This was no comatose person, on the verge of dying — not by any means!

Terri’s seemingly vegetative condition should not have been used as a criterion to end her life. After all, there are many people in a condition similar to hers. But now that she was “legally” starved to death, a dangerous precedent has been set. Anyone who is mentally disabled is completely at the mercy of whoever makes decisions on their behalf. Will we now see feeding tubes withdrawn left and right, all in the name of “nobody is obliged to use extraordinary means”?

One last thought: it was alleged that Mr. Schiavo was abusive towards his wife. It is regrettable that the court did not investigate these allegations thoroughly, and, if he was found guilty, to have awarded custody to someone else. His living in open adultery alone should have been grounds for conflict-of-interest charges and incompetence to act in the best interests of his suffering wife.

Let us pray that God give us a true Roman Pontiff, to whom we can appeal for authoritative rulings in such matters. As the supreme teacher and ruler of the Catholic Church, he gives us binding decisions on matters of faith or morals. Let that time come, O Lord, when we will have the joy and benefit of a visible Shepherd, leading his universal flock to Thee!

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