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Atrophy of Compassion

Fr. Frank comments on Terri Schiavo autopsy

The autopsy of Terri Schiavo has been released to the public, bringing attention once again to this sad and tragic case, and reigniting so many of the debates surrounding her life and death. Does the autopsy shed any light on this tragedy? Does it change anything?

The autopsy, of course, is a medical document about Terri’s physical condition. It is filled with complicated medical terms and statistics. In and of itself, it tells us simply the details found upon examining Terri’s body. An autopsy is not a crystal ball either into the past or the future. Nor is it a moral evaluation of the worth of a human life.

The big temptation is to stretch the autopsy beyond its purposes, and somehow get it to do more than it can do. Some, indeed, wonder whether this autopsy was, from the beginning, a political tool worked out by the euthanasia advocates to advance their agenda regarding Terri. Whether or not that is the case, the autopsy will certainly be used by such advocates to further de-humanize Terri and rob her of her claim to care and protection.

But let’s presume that those who conducted this exam did so objectively and honestly. What, then, do we learn?

For one thing, the autopsy shows that all the media reports that so confidently asserted that Terri collapsed because of "an eating disorder" or "a heart attack" should not have been so confident. In short, the autopsy does not provide a basis for those claims, and leaves the cause of her initial collapse in 1990 a mystery.

Was Michael Schiavo at all responsible for her collapse? The autopsy does not answer that question. Perhaps Michael should.

What the exam does tell us, however, is that Terri died from dehydration. Of course, we knew that already. She wasn’t given any water the last two weeks of her life, and we know why. Michael, and those acting in concert with him, insisted on that and got the courts to enforce their wishes. We don’t know if Michael was responsible for Terri’s injury, but we do know he was responsible for her death.

The autopsy goes on to say that Terri’s brain was "profoundly atrophied," and only half the normal size. Fine. If that’s what the experts tell us, there is no problem believing them. But what does that mean, that she was only half-human, only half a person, or that she had only half the rights that the rest of us have? That is the conclusion that we must never accept. That is a conclusion that does not come from an autopsy, but from a callous disregard for human life.

Terri did not die from atrophy of the brain. She died from an atrophy of compassion. Too many people, starting with Michael, were unwilling to accept the fact that profoundly injured people require profound compassion and care. Even if this autopsy report showed that Terri was ten times more damaged than she was, our moral obligation to respect and protect her life would not change at all. We don’t have to pass a test to qualify for our human rights. An autopsy is a measure of physical damage, not of human rights.

The autopsy says Terri was blind. That is not the morally relevant point. The point is that we are blind…Blind all too often to the fact that even the disabled and the severely injured have the same dignity and worth as the rest of us, and show forth the image and glory of God, even in their brokenness.

The autopsy says that Terri was beyond repair or rehabilitation. But that does not mean we are supposed to throw her away, like we throw away a car that is beyond repair. Again, there is no problem accepting this medical conclusion. But morally speaking, our compassion is not beyond repair. We can build a society that respects and protects all our brothers and sisters, recognizing that their value does not come from how well they function, perform, or produce.

I will never forget my hours with Terri, both before and after her feeding tube was removed. She responded to me, and she responded to others who visited her. She laughed, she tried to speak, she returned her parents’ kisses, she followed us with her eyes, she closed her eyes when I prayed with her and opened them when we were finished. Medical examiners can offer their conclusions because of what they saw, but none of that changes what we saw. But both we and the medical examiners were looking in from the outside. Any honest medical expert will admit that there is so much about the human brain we still don’t know. What Terri experienced on the inside is a mystery that only she and God know.

The challenge at this moment is simply this. Whatever she experienced, to whatever extent she was damaged, and even if she were totally unresponsive, Terri was one of us. She was our sister, she was a child of God, she was fully in possession of her human rights, and nothing can ever justify what was done to her.

Terri Schiavo was murdered, because she was deprived of food and water. We’ve done the examination on her body. Maybe it’s time for an examination of our souls.

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