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Schiavo's Legacy: The Value of Life in a Nation That Cheapens It

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Terri Schiavo would have been 48 this December 3 … not a major mile-marker among we, the living, but a cause for reflection for those who loved her, and for all those who fought so valiantly to save her, in those terrible years and months and days before she was starved to death, by court order, in March, 2005.


A cause for reflection because, as so many observed and warned us at the time, her death – court mandated, despite the express wishes of her parents and siblings and the best efforts of the President and Congress of the United States – marked a crucial turning point in our nation’s cultural attitude toward life. Perhaps no judicial action since Roe v. Wade has done more to convince ordinary Americans that individual lives are expendable to those pushing for an increasingly callous medical establishment.

Two recent events give signs of the undertow that is quietly dragging our society’s longstanding reverence for life out into a rising sea of situation ethics. One is the coming of ObamaCare, and with it concerns over what Sarah Palin, in her memorable phrase, termed “the death panels.” As this administration’s medical insurance plan now becomes a matter of debate at the nation’s highest court, so too will that plan’s seeming tolerance – if not encouragement – of medical profit centers who make decisions on their patients’ treatment based on comparisons of the cost of that treatment to the perceived value of those patients to society as a whole.

Doctors protest that such decisions are comparable to the triage medics perform on battlefields. Someone has to gauge which patients can be saved, and which must be allowed to die if others are to be spared. But back home at City Memorial, the battle involves bucks, not bullets. The enormous costs of hospital care in a spiraling economy inevitably corrupt the decision process.


In a medical arena where humanity is increasingly supplanted by multi-million-dollar economic interests, life and death decisions become all too easy. Soon, it’s cheaper to pull a plug than to fill a prescription.

Of course, the pressures aren’t only financial. As the lists of patients awaiting transplants grow longer, pressure is mounting in many medical circles to speed along the process of dying, the better to harvest organs for those in need. Rob Stein of The Washington Post reported a few months ago on the increasingly aggressive efforts by the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) to rewrite the rules on when a patient is “dead” and his organs can be removed.

UNOS, a Richmond nonprofit organization with a contract from the federal government to coordinate organ transplants nationwide, is pressing for two crucial changes to the currently approved organ harvest system: one, requiring that a patient’s heart only has to be stopped for two minutes (rather than five) before harvesting begins. And, two, suggesting that the doctors trying to resuscitate the patient and the doctors waiting to harvest that patient’s organs no longer have to be two separate teams … they can be one in the same.

If that sounds like a conflict of interest, it certainly can be – and it worries many doctors and nurses who, in Stein’s words, “fear the medical system will give up on potential donors in their final days or even possibly speed their deaths by giving them anti-clotting medication or other organ-preserving drugs, which could hasten death.” Those fears become increasingly justified when you consider that some doctors at a Denver children’s hospital have already been caught cutting the waiting time down from five minutes to 75 seconds.


After all, many people are willing to pay a lot of money – or exercise a lot of influence – to ensure that their loved ones (or they themselves) receive the organ that can save their life. Under such circumstances, a living person can seem infinitely less valuable than the sum of his parts.

Friends of life like the Bioethics Defense Fund and Americans United for Life are doing everything in their power to reverse these trends, but perhaps no entity is doing more on the ground to awaken the nation to this creeping contempt for human life than the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. Each year, the group, founded by Terri’s surviving family, refers dozens of end-of-life cases to lawyers (like those of our own Alliance Defense Fund) willing to intercede when spouses, family members, or medical professionals seem determined to end a still viable life prematurely.

The Schiavo Network’s courage and integrity – born out of heartbreaking experience – is unmatched. And their influence is growing … as are the attacks and challenges they face alongside all who hold life sacred, and who see every living soul as made in the image of our Creator.

Forty-eight years old. No great mile-marker, as people count birthdays. But that’s all right. As a symbol … as a martyr … as a daughter mourned … but, mostly, as one whose soul once radiated that divine image so beautifully … Terri Schiavo will live forever.


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