Thomas Fleming’s reflections on the Schiavo case (“New Wine in Old Bottles,” Perspective, May) disappointed but did not surprise me, since, a few years back, he defended our government when it handed over Elian Gonzalez to the tender mercies of a totalitarian government.  In both cases, the crux of his argument seems to be the right of the husband and father, as head of the family, to make decisions on behalf of family members.  As far as I know, no legal system informed by Christian teaching gives the paterfamilias the right of life and death over family members, a right he enjoyed in Roman times.

The Schiavo case was not a question of the husband, Michael, making decisions regarding medical treatment for his incapacitated wife.  It was a matter of his making the decision to terminate her life.  That is what depriving a patient of nutrition and hydration does.  These things, in Catholic teaching, are not extraordinary treatment or, indeed, treatment at all, but merely the care owed to any sick person.

Christian teaching certainly affords the family substantial authority and autonomy, but that does not mean the state has no jurisdiction in family matters.  The state has a fundamental duty to protect innocent life, which means that the family’s autonomy does not extend to a right of the head of the family to murder family members.  This is a matter of criminal, not family, law.  And, through much of the history of Christendom, the Church limited the excessive powers exercised by extended families by attempting to replace the power of the clans with the rule of law.

Of course, in the Schiavo case, there is another question: Does the head of household retain his authority when he has abandoned his family, as Michael Schiavo did by cohabiting with another woman and having children by her?

Dr. Fleming fails to address the blatant lack of impartiality in the judicial process that led to Terri Schiavo’s execution.  Judge Greer consistently refused even to consider testimony that might have led to a different result in the case, while basically blowing off such evidence when he bothered to look at all.  The most egregious instance of this involved testimony from a friend of Terri Schiavo, who stated that, during the 1980’s, she (the friend) had made a rather callous joke about the Karen Ann Quinlan case, provoking an angry reaction from Terri, who opposed taking Quinlan off a ventilator and opined that, “while there’s life, there’s hope.”  This, if true, tended to refute Michael Schiavo’s claim that Terri had said she would never want to be kept alive in a “vegetative” state.  Judge Greer stated that, since Quinlan had died during the 1970’s, and since the conversation had allegedly occurred while Quinlan was still alive, Terri Schiavo would have been so young at the time that what she said could not be taken seriously as reflecting her mature thinking.  The attorneys for Terri’s parents, the Schindlers, pointed out that the judge had his facts wrong: Quinlan had died in 1985.  The judge acknowledged this but refused to reverse his ruling, simply stating that he still did not consider the witness’s testimony credible.  Judge Greer clearly had decided on the outcome of the case before the first scrap of evidence was heard.  He should have been impeached and prosecuted, and his decision thrown out.

Dr. Fleming echoes the arguments of Terri Schiavo’s murderers when he says that, “before the autopsy, there was some room for doubt about her prospects (though no competent physician who examined her thought so).”  But “her prospects” were not the issue, if by this Fleming means the possibility of a full or partial recovery.  Even if no improvement was possible, Terri Schiavo was still alive and probably conscious to some extent.  Her life was entitled to protection.  The severity of her disability did not change that.  And what are Dr. Fleming’s particular qualifications for evaluating medical competence?  Physicians hired by the Schindlers supported their belief that Terri had some awareness of what was going on around her.  Is Dr. Fleming in a position to know that these physicians were incompetent?  Furthermore, the autopsy established nothing on this point.  The pathologist who conducted it said that it was impossible to know, from its findings, whether she was in a persistent vegetative state or whether she had any consciousness.  The autopsy did find that the brain was severely shrunken, but that was likely the result of two weeks of dehydration.  The truth is, there was an overreliance on technical expertise in this case.  Science does not have the kind of magical ability people attribute to it to know the truth about these situations.  Terri’s family, who had known and loved her all her life, believed she was conscious and aware, so the court ought to have accepted this as most likely the case, rather than relying on experts who spent perhaps an hour examining her.

Underlying Dr. Fleming’s arguments is his blanket rejection of universalism.  He is correct, of course, in rejecting the distorted universalism of the so-called Enlightenment and the Renaissance but doesn’t seem to understand that there is truth behind the distortion, a truth grounded in Christianity.  Embedded in Christianity is the vision of an ordered creation that is good, because it is grounded in the goodness of the Creator, as well as of a human nature that, while distorted by sin, is good because it is made in the image and likeness of God.  Hence the dignity and inviolability and, yes, the rights of the human person in the context of natural law, an order that has to be the basis for all legitimate positive law.  Without that understanding of things, we end up with legal positivism, in which law is grounded only in the arbitrary will of the lawgiver.  Again and again, Dr. Fleming seems to be saying that the law is the law whether it is just or unjust, and we are obliged to obey it.  If that means allowing a sociopath to manipulate the law in order to murder an innocent person, so be it.  This is in sharp contrast to Catholic teaching, which holds that an unjust law is no law at all and has no moral claim on our obedience.

Our elites are in the process of imposing Hitler’s euthanasia program on us.  It would behoove Dr. Fleming to become at least a little alarmed at this development, rather than waste time and column inches attacking those who are trying to do something about it.

        —George A. Kendall
Grand Marais, MI

I’m very disappointed that Thomas Fleming ruined an otherwise fine article by defending the court-ordered starvation murder of Terri Schiavo.  He mentioned the autopsy: How would your brain look after 13 days of dehydration and starvation?  Might it have shrunk a tad?  Her parents loved her and took care of her, yet her husband (who may well have been responsible for putting her in that condition) could starve her to death.  How is this different from a woman murdering her baby by abortion out of convenience?

It would have been far more humane to blow Terri’s brains out with a shotgun, but that would be murder.  What’s the difference?

        —Alexander Davidson
Charleston, WV

Dr. Fleming Replies:

Hard cases proverbially make bad law, and it is unfortunate that Christian conservatives have attempted to make a general moral law out of the poor materials provided by the case of the unfortunate Mrs. Schiavo.  There are four basic elements of the question: the fact of her medical condition; the laws of Florida and the United States; the relative rights of spouses, parents, and governments over life-and-death decisions; and Christian moral teachings.

On the question of fact, medical examination before and after Mrs. Schiavo’s death pointed to an extreme loss not only of brain function but of the brain itself.  We must either accept the evidence or believe that all the physicians and lab technicians were part of a conspiracy.  And, if we are not to believe them, whose testimony are we to accept?  The only answer is no one’s, which puts the discussion outside the bounds of reason and science.

On the legal question, there is no serious dispute.  The laws of the state of Florida were carried out.  Good laws or bad, it is not up to private citizens to violate those laws, and, if the medical evidence is to be believed, those who attempted illegally to provide water would have caused the immediate death of the patient.  Under the U.S. Constitution, even in its currently dilapidated condition, the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over such a case.  Michael Schiavo’s decision may well have been immoral, but, in Florida, it was his legal right to make.

If not the husband, then who does have such a right?  The parents who had previously agreed that she was in a persistent vegetative state and told Mr. Schiavo he should be dating other women?  Such a position goes entirely against the Christian view of marriage, though it is consistent with a Roman father’s right (in some cases) to kill his daughter and her lover, if they commit adultery under his roof.  That is the only application of the patria potestas relevant to this case.

What about the Supreme Court, the President, or a panel of “experts”—the same politicians and professionals who have legalized homosexuality and abortion on demand?  Are we to give them explicit power over life and death?

Many extravagant things have been written about what constitutes “ordinary means.”  Until a generation ago, family members, in making a decision, had to consider whether any recovery was possible.  (In this case, the husband was told it was not.)  They also had to consider the nature of the means used to prolong life.  Food and water, administered in the normal manner, were obviously normal, while means that artificially keep the lungs breathing and the heart pumping were not.  Artificial means are obviously necessary in emergencies and as part of a program to maintain life in the expectation of recovery.  They are just as obviously cruel and unnecessary when there is no such hope.  Michael Schiavo may be a thoroughly bad man, though evidence provided by his in-laws, who had originally cooperated with him in his unjust suit against his wife’s fertility doctor, is necessarily suspect.  He may be a weak man who made a bad decision.  Or he might have done the right thing.  I have discussed this case at length with two serious old-fashioned priests as well as with serious-minded Protestant and Catholic laymen who understand their traditions.  All of them concluded that, on the basis of the evidence presented, Michael Schiavo’s decision was morally defensible.

In considering this and similar painful cases, we do well to recall that the Scriptures and the Christian tradition have taught us to regard this mortal life as a time of trial that prepares us for eternity.  One way or another, Mrs. Schiavo would be dead before too long.  So will I.  In the meantime, conservative Christians persist in their dangerous delusion that the United States is a Christian nation that will soon come to its senses by passing legislation in conformity with Christ’s moral teachings.  This means, inevitably, that they are willing to strengthen the control of Caesar in exactly those areas of life where Caesar’s hand should never intrude.  Socialist revolutions have always aimed at either eliminating or minimizing the significance of marriage and the family.  Too often, it seems, they have found allies on the Christian right.