Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - After years of criticism for not taking a public stand in the matter, the bishops of the Florida Catholic Conference issued a statement late Wednesday regarding the euthanasia controversy involving Terri Schindler Schiavo.
"If Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube were to be removed because the nutrition she receives is of no use to her, or because she is near death, or because it is unreasonably burdensome for her, her family or caregivers, it could be seen as permissible," the bishops wrote.
"But if her feeding tube were to be removed to intentionally cause her death, or because her life is perceived to be useless, or because it is believed that the quality of her life is such that she would be better off, this would be wrong."
Terri Schiavo is a 39-year-old disabled woman who suffered a brain injury under questionable circumstances in 1990. As a result, she is unable to care for herself and is provided nutrition and hydration through a "feeding tube."
As CNSNews.com previously reported, the Florida Supreme Court refused Aug. 22 to review her case, placing it back in the hands of the district court of appeals. That court ruled Aug. 25 that the original trial court should proceed with its decision to set a "death date" for Terri. That hearing is scheduled for Sept. 11.
The bishops of the conference had been criticized for their initial lack of comment on the matter, which they left to Terri's local bishop, Robert N. Lynch. In an October 15, 2002, statement, Lynch had said that the church would "refrain from passing judgment on the actions of anyone in this tragic moment." But in an August 12, 2003, statement, Lynch reversed course.
"I strongly recommend that...Terri's family be allowed to attempt a medical protocol which they feel would improve her condition," Lynch wrote in a two-and-a-half-page statement.
The outcry against the remainder of Lynch's colleagues intensified August 25, when they issued a clemency request to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on behalf of Paul Hill, who has been sentenced to die Sept. 3 for the shotgun murders of an abortionist and his driver.
Pamela Hennessy, volunteer media coordinator for Terri's family, wrote to the executive director of the conference as soon as she learned of the bishops' public stand on Hill's scheduled execution.
"I respectfully request that you convey to the Florida bishops that, if all life is truly sacred, their defense of a convicted killer coupled with their disinterest in the life of a disabled and innocent woman is beyond offensive," Hennessy wrote. "I know that Floridians of all denominations would readily agree with me."
Although they do not acknowledge Hennessy's letter or the ensuing media coverage and public outcry, the bishops issued their statement just two days later.
"Without question, removal of Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube will result in her death. We respect the need for finality of the court's decision, but we urge additional time to allow greater certainty as to her true condition," the bishops wrote.
"We respect, too, the limitations on new evidence being considered by the court, but in matters of life and death, exceptions should be made," the bishops continued. "If additional medical treatment can be shown to be helpful to her condition, we urge that all parties involved take the safer course and allow it to be used."
Hennessy called the statement "a complete turnaround in their posture [that] merits reporting."
Cecilia Martin, editor of the Catholic Advocate in the St. Augustine, Fla., Diocese and a member of the Catholic Media Coalition (CMC) who had originally criticized the bishops' lack of public intervention in the case, had a mixed reaction.
"Many Catholics would have preferred the Schiavo statement to reflect the strong words of Bishop Ricard," Martin said, referring to the bishop's August 25 plea to spare the life of Paul Hill.
"We [the Florida bishops] do not support the execution of anyone in Florida," Ricard wrote. "We believe that it is morally indefensible and offers no solution to the violence which plagues our communities."
Martin argues that the court-ordered removal of Terri's feeding tube is a scheduled "execution" and that the bishops should respond to both with the same passion and clarity of purpose.
"It is ironic that the two Floridians sentenced to die are locked into the struggles of the Catholic Church against the culture of death: a self-professed guilty minister who killed a man who killed the unborn, and an unprofessed innocent woman, the possible victim of spousal abuse," Martin said. "One is to die in seconds by lethal injection; the other is to undergo a lengthy starvation until death; both sentences are to be carried out by the state.
"A stronger and more positive tone to the bishop's 'Schiavo statement' would have pleased Terri's supporters," Martin concluded. "However, all are grateful for the words of Catholic bishops in support of life."
In the strongest portion of the bishops' statement, they rejected the "culture of death" behind the so-called "right to die" movement.
"We reject outright the euthanasia movement and its utilitarian standard that some lives are not worth living," the bishops wrote. "Every life is precious and unrepeatable."
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