The execution of Terri Schiavo

Posted: Apr 01, 2005 12:00 AM

Terri Schiavo is dead. She did not die a natural death, unless you believe a court order to cut off food and water to a disabled woman until she dies of starvation and thirst is natural.

 No, Terri Schiavo was executed by the state of Florida. Her crime? She was so mentally disabled as to be unworthy of life in the judgment of Judge George Greer. The execution was carried out at Woodside Hospice. An autopsy will reveal that Terri's vital organs shut down for lack of food and water. She did not die of the brain damage she suffered 15 years ago. She was put to death. We have crossed a watershed in America.

 Michael Schiavo's argument that Greer found compelling was that this is what Terri wanted and she had told him so, though Michael never mentioned this until eight years after she was disabled.

 Did Terri, at 26, really tell the man to whom she swore lifelong fidelity to find a way to kill her if she became handicapped? Is that what she had in mind when they pledged to stand by each other "in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part"?

 Was Terri that different from her mom, dad, brother and sister, who fought with all they had to keep her alive so they could take care of her for all the years she had left? Why, one wonders, did this severely handicapped woman fight for two weeks against the dying of the light?

 America is a great country because she is good country, and if ever she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great, Alexis de Toqueville is quoted as saying. Are we that America today? Are we the same kind of people? Would the country we grew up in have done this to a disabled woman?

 Hubert Humphrey, a passionate liberal, once said, "The moral test of government is how (it) treats those who are in the dawn of life ... those who are in the twilight of life ... and those who are in the shadows of life."

 In America, three in 10 in the dawn of life never see the light of day. They are destroyed in the womb because their very existence embarrasses or would encumber their parents. In the twilight of life, we have begun to provide our elderly ill with the means of assisted suicide. In Europe, euthanasia has become involuntary in some nursing homes. In the shadows of life -- the sick, the needy, the handicapped -- there is now in this land we once called "God's country" a chance the state will put you to death.

 The motivations of the good folks praying for Terri outside the hospice one can understand. The motives of her parents one can understand. Even the motives of Michael Schiavo one can understand. He wants to be rid of Terri to start a new life with his new family.

 What is inexplicable is why he did not get a divorce and let her go. What is inexplicable is the behavior of the media talking heads, who seemed so desperately anxious that the judge's ruling not be reversed and that Terri die. Why were they so pro-death?

 One must not interfere in a family decision, they say. But these are the same folks who always demand interference if a father takes a belt to discipline his 14-year-old delinquent son.

 This is what Terri would have wanted, they say. We have no right to interfere. But what Terri would have wanted is unclear and in dispute. And if there is disagreement, why not come down on the side of life? Why come down on the side of death, which is final and forever? Why were so many progressives on the side of death for Terri Schiavo?

 Conservatives are hypocrites, they charge. The Right opposes judicial activism and preaches states' rights. But in Terri's case, the Right clamored for judicial activism and rejected states' rights.

 But this is absurd. The judicial activist in Terri's case is Greer, who sentenced a brain-damaged woman to death by starvation and dehydration. If this is not judicial activism, in violation of a citizen's right to life, due process of law, and not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, what is?

 And what is there left to say about that angel of death, the American Civil Liberties Union? As Nat Hentoff writes, the ACLU, "which would be passionately criticizing state court decisions and demanding due process if Terri were a convict on death row, has shamefully served as co-counsel for her husband, Michael Schiavo, in his insistent desire to have her die."

 But whose rights were in mortal peril here? Why was the ACLU not at the door of that hospice, denouncing Greer the way it would be at the door of a penitentiary denouncing Jeb Bush, if the ACLU even suspected an innocent man was being put to death?

 We have turned a sad page in the history of America's decline.