Pro-Life Group Questions 'Quality of Life' Premise in Schiavo Case

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - A coalition of pro-life Christian groups Tuesday challenged the premise that human beings have the right to a minimum "quality of life" and can choose to end their lives when that standard is not achieved. The announcement came one day before the family of Terri Schindler Schiavo was to go back to court to have her husband, Michael Schiavo - who is actively seeking to end the disabled woman's life - removed as her guardian.

George Felos, one of Michael Schiavo's attorneys, told NBC's Today show on Oct. 22 that not allowing Schiavo to end his wife's life was "an absolute trampling of [Terri's] personal rights and, and her dignity.

"It's already been determined by the court she has the right to refuse artificial feeding, which she did," Felos said, repeating Michael Schiavo's widely disputed claim.

The author of Litigation as Spiritual Practice complained that Terri had been "abducted from her deathbed" and that the Florida legislature had unconstitutionally given Gov. Jeb Bush (R) "the power to just override a patient's medical treatment choices" when it passed "Terri's Law." Bush ordered Terri's nutrition and hydration resumed against Schiavo's wishes almost immediately after the proposal became law.

"Instead of allowing her a peaceful, painless death in a short period of time," Felos complained, "this act, in fact, may have prolonged her death, and she may be under significant physical distress and an extended death process."

Felos, a noted advocate of the so-called "right to die," won the Florida Supreme Court case that granted competent adults in the state the right to issue a written "advanced directive" declaring the conditions under which life-prolonging medical care should be terminated if they are unable to communicate their wishes at the time due to illness or injury. Terri had no such advanced directive.

Whether or not Terri - who suffered a brain injury in 1990 under questionable circumstances while at home alone with her husband - verbally expressed a desire not to be kept alive by a feeding tube is still a point of great contention.

Schiavo, his brother and another brother's wife claim Terri made comments to that effect to them. None of Terri's biological family, friends, co-workers or fellow parishioners has come forward to support the claim, which conflicts with Terri's expressed Catholic faith.

So-called "right-to-die" groups, such as "End of Life Choices" (formerly known as the Hemlock Society), believe that "depriving someone of choice and dignity in the final chapters of life is morally and ethically wrong.

"[End of Life] Choices advocates that physicians should have the right to help terminally ill patients achieve a peaceful death, if that is the patient's desire, because no government has the right to legislate over death," the group states on its website.

Pro-life group questions Terri's alleged wishes, 'right-to-die' philosophy

But the National Pro-Life Religious Council (NPRC) discounts the underlying premise of the entire "right-to-die" argument.

"It presumes that we are entitled as human beings to a certain 'quality of life,'" said Kirk Vanderswaagh, vice president of the NPRC. "That is a very subjective decision as to what the standard is to judge that by."

The NPRC believes that neither permanent disability nor injury nor serious illness is sufficient grounds to justify intentionally and prematurely ending any human life.

"When that is already embraced, then the next thing that happens is that, as in this case, we have somebody else making that decision for someone," Vanderswaagh said. "The next step after that is [to assume] that it is perfectly alright to take a human life when 'circumstances' call for it."

Vanderswaagh noted that the acceptance of an alleged "right to die" is anathema to the centuries-old concept of valuing all human life.

"The door is open because of the underlying assumption that we are free to destroy our life when we're no longer pleased with its quality, no longer pleased with its direction. That's, historically, always been viewed as something that's tragic," Vanderswaagh said. "When someone wants to commit suicide and can't face the future or doesn't like the way the future looks, that's something that we seek, as a society, historically, to want to go out and rescue somebody from, pull somebody in from the ledge of the building, not say, 'Go for it!'"

Vanderswaagh points to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision in which the very body charged as the ultimate protector of the rights of all Americans ruled that "Negro slaves" were not human beings, but rather, property. The group recalls another example, the murder of millions of Jews at the hands of Hitler's Nazi regime, as proof that humans cannot be trusted to appropriately decide such questions of humanity.

The NPRC also argues that, because its members believe God is the source of human life, they also believe it is up to God alone to determine when life ends, except in cases of a self-defense use of deadly force.

"Scriptures consistently affirm that we are creatures, not the Creator, that it is God who has made us, not we ourselves," Vanderswaagh said, noting that the "creature" designation applies to the disabled and dying just as much as to the able-bodied and well. "We're still obligated to treat that person with respect as a human being, and the only right impulse for that is to try to preserve life and not destroy it."

Regardless of opinions on 'right to die,' group says it's not an issue for Terri

Father Frank Pavone, president of the NPRC, believes the so-called "right-to-die" and "death-with-dignity" arguments are an irrelevant distraction from the facts of Terri's case. Though significant, Pavone said even the fact that Schiavo is trying to cause Terri's death by dehydration is not the key factor because "that happens routinely.

"Rather," Pavone said in an opinion column released Tuesday, "Terri's case is a test of whether we will wake up and realize that letting patients decide they want to be killed means that some patients will be killed against their will."

Vanderswaagh agreed, questioning why Schiavo still holds guardianship over his wife.

"Here's a man who's involved in a fully adulterous relationship, and somehow, he can still claim the right of 'husband?' I wonder whether Florida state law supports that," Vanderswaagh asked rhetorically. "If he has demonstrated himself to no longer be functioning within those marriage vows, is he still considered [her] husband?

"It's so absurd that he's exercising guardianship as a 'husband,'" Vanderswaagh concluded, "when he's clearly no longer her husband."

Terri's parents agree. Schiavo's adulterous relationship with a woman who has given birth to one child by him and is carrying his second child is listed as one of 50 alleged violations in a petition the Schindler family has filed with the Probate Court of Pinellas County, Florida. The petition seeks to have Schiavo removed as Terri's guardian and to have him replaced either with her father, Robert Schindler, or her sister, Suzanne Schindler Carr.

"Schiavo has demonstrated through repeated and gross failures to comply with the law that he is incapable of discharging the duties of guardian," wrote attorney Patricia Anderson in the petition.

Specific allegations the Schindler family makes against Schiavo in their petition include:

    Adultery in violation of Florida law;
    Misappropriation of funds awarded by a civil jury for Terri's rehabilitation;
    Conflict of interest. The Schindlers believe Schiavo may be trying to end Terri's life to avoid paying alimony that could be awarded if a new guardian successfully petitioned for a divorce on her behalf;
    Denial of health care in violation of Florida law;
    Failure to meet deadlines for completing guardianship plans as required by Florida law;
    Failure to complete annual guardian training as required by Florida law;
    Authorizing experimental medial procedures without court approval;
    Concealing information from the court; and
    Exceeding the specific guardianship authorities granted by the court, also allegedly in violation of Florida law.

Felos instructed not to contact him for comments on stories regarding Terri in mid-September. He has, however, previously denied any guilt on the part of his client in response to allegations made by the Schindler family.

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