An autopsy report released in mid-June, three months after the death of Terri Schiavo, disclosed that her brain had withered to half the normal size, that the damage to it was irreversible, that she was unaware of her surroundings and that the deterioration of her brain had left her blind. Medical examiners concluded that no treatment could have even remotely improved her condition.
Dr. Jon R. Thogmartin, the medical examiner who had led the autopsy in Pinellas County, Fla., said at a news conference that the condition of Mrs. Schiavo’s body was “consistent” with earlier medical findings that she was in a persistent vegetative state. “No amount of therapy or treatment,” he pointed out, “would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons.”
Unfortunately, the moral dimensions of the case had been overwhelmed by politics. Many conservative Republicans, including the president of the United States, the majority leaders of both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, the governor of Florida and a number of others, seized the opportunity to reaffirm their pro-life credentials in the eyes of their party’s base of support, particularly among evangelical Protestants.
Sen. Bill Frist, the majority leader and a medical doctor in his own right, had said on the floor of the Senate on March 17 that, after viewing the videotape of Mrs. Schiavo, it was clear that she was responsive. “To be able to make a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state — which is not brain dead; it is not coma; it is a specific diagnosis and typically takes multiple examinations over a period of time because you are looking at responsiveness — I have looked at the video footage. Based on the footage provided to me, which was part of the facts of the case, she does respond.”
The majority leader of the House, Congressman Tom DeLay, who is not a medical doctor, said three days later, on March 20, that Terri Schiavo’s condition had been “misrepresented” by the media. “Terri Schiavo,” he insisted, “is not brain dead; she talks and she laughs, and she expressed happiness and discomfort. Terri Schiavo is not on life support.”
For many Catholics — including priests and theologians educated in the years prior to, during and immediately after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) — the Terri Schiavo case was always morally clear-cut.
The traditional teaching of the Catholic Church for at least four centuries — a teaching reaffirmed and extended by the most prominent of the pre-Vatican II popes, Pius XII (1939-58) — distinguished between ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life. No one, the church consistently taught, is obliged to use extraordinary means to sustain their life on this earth.
Over the course of centuries, the meaning of “extraordinary” has fluctuated. As medical technology took great leaps forward, the church recognized the need to revise its definition of the term.
Almost every reputable Catholic moral theologian who commented on the Schiavo case concluded that continuing the use of a feeding tube to keep Mrs. Schiavo alive was a clear instance of an extraordinary means, and as such could be dispensed with. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, such means would be “disproportionate to the expected outcome” (n. 2278).
The autopsy report removed all doubt that the withdrawal of the feeding tube, far from being an act of euthanasia or even outright murder, was entirely consistent with traditional Catholic moral principles.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.