Terri Schiavo and the Echoes of Abortion

by Cathy Cleaver Ruse, Esq.

March 31, 2005

Terri Schiavo died the morning of this writing, after having been refused food and water for two weeks. In the horrific treatment of her -- which Nat Hentoff calls the longest public execution in American history -- we can hear the echoes of the abortion mentality.

First, the question asked repeatedly in press reports is, "What would Terri have wanted?" With no more evidence than the word of her disaffected husband, a Florida judge agreed with his conclusion that she would not want to live this way. The appeals court agreed, saying the question was whether Terri "would choose to continue the constant nursing care and the supporting tubes" or would "wish to permit a natural death process to take its course and for her family members and loved ones to be free to continue their lives."

This type of calculation happens every day when prenatal tests show a possible disability in an unborn child. Our culture has taught women to ask, "would the child want to live this way?" -- and to decide that the compassionate answer is, "no."

A recent "no regrets" article on abortion in Salon.com showed one woman's thinking: "I did not want to raise a genetically compromised child," she wrote. "I did not want my children ... compelled to care for their brother after I died. I wanted a genetically perfect baby, and because that was something I could control, I chose to end his life."

This is why disability rights groups have spoken out against selective abortion, and have come out in force in favor of saving Terri Schiavo. They are challenging the notion that a life such as Terri's is meaningless -- or worse, robs others of their freedom. They are fighting the culture-of-death perception that death is better than living with a disability. And they should know.

There is another parallel to abortion. The judge in Florida ordered not only that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube be removed, but that no attempts be made to provide her with food or water, even by mouth. Guards standing watch at her hospice room door make sure her parents did not wet her parched lips.

In other words, it was not a right to remove medical treatment that was granted, but an order that Terri Schiavo be made to die.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court said the Constitution gives a woman the right "to terminate her pregnancy." But thirty years of court rulings reveal an even more terrible truth about Roe.

In striking down New Jersey's partial-birth abortion ban, for example, federal judge Maryanne Barry said a fetus is not "in the process of being 'born' at the time of its demise" because "[a] woman seeking an abortion is plainly not seeking to give birth." In other words, a child marked for death is something wholly different from a "wanted" child in the same physical location. It's not the end of a pregnancy that is sought or protected by legal abortion, but the right to a dead baby.

Every human life has incalculable worth and meaning, no matter its age or condition. No judge should have the power to order the death of a weak and helpless human being -- in or out of the womb.

May the soul of Terri Schiavo rest in peace.

Cathy Cleaver Ruse, Esq. is the director of planning and information for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.