Co-sponsored by the archdiocesan Respect Life Office and Pro-Life Commission, the seminar featured keynote speakers Bobby Schindler, brother of Terri Schiavo, the brain-injured Florida woman who died three years ago after a court ordered cessation of nutrition, and Father Tadeusz Pacholcyk, a columnist for The Catholic Advocate and director of education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.
Jim Sondey, chairman of the Pro-Life Commission, believes ethical questions that arise at the end of someone's life are important to the pro-life movement.
"End-of-life issues is an important topic and there are a lot of families going through this right now. The Pro-Life Commission tries to cover a different topic each year that is under the larger subject of 'respect life,'" Sondey explained.
Schindler began the day by clarifying aspects of the Schiavo controversy that are often misinterpreted. Theresa "Terri" Schiavo died on March 31, 2005 at the age of 41. She collapsed in her home in 1990 and experienced respiratory and cardiac arrest. She fell into a coma and within three years, was diagnosed as being in a "persistent vegetative state."
The dispute over her fate began to receive national attention and included a legal history of numerous appeals, motions, petitions and hearing in Florida courts and Federal District Court. Her feeding tube was removed on March 18, 2005 and she died at nearby Pinellas Park Hospice 13 days later.
"Terri was not dying therefore her case was not really an end-oflife issue. She had a profound cognitive disability and was relatively healthy before she suddenly collapsed. We need to look at this issue with the same energy and earnestness of the abortion issue," Schindler stressed.
The result of the Schiavo case revealed a "culture of death," according to Schindler, and the media perpetuated false information about his sister. "America is disconnected and desensitized by violence. Food and water is no longer basic care but is considered extraordinary care."
He also takes umbrage with the term "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) and feels it is denigrating to the disabled. "The PVS diagnosis should be abolished. It is extremely dangerous and it is done to attack the personhood of the disabled. A person is dehumanized and is referred to as a 'vegetable.' The term is cruel and offensive," Schindler declared.
The mainstream media made egregious mistakes while reporting the Schiavo case and Schindler believes there is disdain for his family and their supporters to this day. Politicizing the controversial case, he believes, was also promoted by the media.
"Lies are lies even if everyone believes them. The media did not want to recognize Terri as a woman with a disability. Over 30 local disability organizations supported my sister. To label her case a 'Republican, right-wing issue' is disingenuous and an outright lie. I feel like I am constantly correcting the media."
There were several news reports that described Schiavo as "brain dead," a point that Schindler vehemently denies. "Terri was very much alive and responsive, so the term 'brain dead' is medically inaccurate. This is journalism today. They will not correct something that is factually wrong."
In 2001, the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation was created to save Schiavo. Today the foundation focuses on helping others avoid the tragedies similar to what she endured. The organization also educates and advocates for millions of Americans suffering from disabilities.
Laws that support assisted suicide, such as the Death with Dignity Act in Oregon, concern Schindler. "What we are doing is making it easier to kill people with brain injuries. What happened to Terri did not end with her. We need to stand and fight against these laws."
The Schiavo case is a reflection on humanity and how our culture deals with death, according to Schindler. Fighting for his sister's right to live, Schindler believes, is not extraordinary or heroic. "My sister's case was about (society) and how we treat the disabled. My family did nothing out of the ordinary; we did what are called to do as a family. The real heroes are those who dedicate their lives to caring for people who need help 24 hours a day."
Schindler believes there is apathy on end-of-life issues and assisted suicide. In Washington State, for example, Initiative 1000 is on the ballot in November that would legalize assisted suicide in the state.
"These laws are getting passed because people are not seeing the repercussions and ramifications," he warned. "People are not seeing this as a serious issue."
Fr. Pacholcyk believes that making morally informed decisions at the end of life is extremely important. For Catholic families, making these choices can be difficult. However, options such as suicide and euthanasia are never justified. The "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare," according to Fr. Pacholcyk, is a "great source to be aware of."
He believes people have a "double fear" of living connected to machines and feeding tubes at the end of their life. "We are afraid of getting stuck in a web of technology, almost like suspended animation, and people will not let us die. We also fear that someone will not care for us and that we will be dispatched too soon."
In the Schiavo case, artificial nutrition and hydration was deemed an "extraordinary" way to keep her alive. According to Pope John Paul II, inserting a feeding tube is not a medical act. "The pope called a feeding tube a natural means of preserving life. Our first human response is to feed our loved ones. We do not want people to spend their last days thirsty and starving," Fr. Pacholcyk explained.
He believes the media's misinterpretation of a PVS in Schiavo's situation is harmful. "A persistent vegetative state is not a coma, brain death or personal illness. People who are brain dead cannot breathe on their own. You cannot equate Terri's brain damage with a death sentence. Brain damage is not an automatic indicator that you are dying."
Family members close to death often say: "I don't want to be a burden," but Fr. Pacholcyk argued that taking care of others is not a burden, but a privilege. "We have the right to be burdens-that is what it means to love each other and to be a family. This is the beautiful cycle of life and death."