According to the Rev. Frank Pavone, the flowers in Terri Schiavo’s room at the Florida hospice where she died got better care than she did.
Pavone, a Roman Catholic priest and founder of Priests for Life, had been an advocate for the 41-year-old Florida woman and her parents.
Schiavo died March 31, about two weeks after her feeding tube was removed at the request of her husband, Michael Schiavo. The feeding tube’s removal came after a lengthy and public court battle between Michael Schiavo and Terri Schiavo’s parents.
According to Michael Schiavo, his attorney, and the courts, Terri Schiavo, who some doctors said was in a persistent vegetative state, with no hope for recovery, did not want to be kept alive artificially. Her parents argued for the right to care for her, saying she recognized familiar faces and responded at some level.
The debate surrounding her death specifically, and life issues in general, still continues, and Pavone said the country is at a critical crossroads.
"How are we going to treat the weakest, the disabled," he asked a crowd of more than 100 at the first of two presentations at the University of Saint Francis’ Gunderson Hall.
The priest was in town Friday as the guest of the Allen County Right-To-Life Committee. He spoke at a luncheon of area priests, non-Catholic pastors and others involved in the anti-abortion rights movement.
For his 3 p.m. presentation, the small Gunderson Hall was nearly full, with the audience ranging in age from the very young to the elderly.
Kristen Mitchell, 19, is president of the newly formed "Cougars for Life" group at the university. She said Pavone’s talk heightened awareness for the group, as well as bringing greater awareness to life issues within the community.
A nursing student, Mitchell said she has had numerous discussions from the lunch tables to the classrooms regarding the Schiavo case and the issues it raised.
Pavone’s visit also sparked a greater interest in such issues, she said.
During his presentation, Pavone described visiting with Terri Schiavo in her hospice room. He said he saw her respond to prayer by closing her eyes, smile at her father, and heard her try to vocalize in communicating with her mother.
"She interacted with me," he said.
He said he had never seen a more horrifying death than hers.
Moral theology always acknowledges treatment that might be declared "worthless" and is not providing any benefit, Pavone said.
But the case with Schiavo was not someone who was being given worthless treatment, he said, because she was not dying.
"The problem was not that her wishes were not clear, but that someone decided her life was not worth living," he said.
He urged people to appoint a health care "proxy," as opposed to adopting a living will. A proxy, he said, someone who shares your individual values, would be able to talk with doctors, pastors or other advisers who can speak on your behalf to determine a course of treatment.
Living wills, he said, cannot predict the future – what technology will be available and how it will be needed.
Pavone said the common inheritance of civilization is that every human life is protected, regardless of its condition. The dignity of every human life must be preserved, he said.
But some on the other side of the debate say that the question is what defines a life, and what makes a person a person.
In an interview, Laurie Proctor, minister emerita at Fort Wayne’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation, said that, in cases such as these, there has to be a time when it is reasonable for a family to decide that who the person was is gone.
"Basically all that’s left is a shell," she said.
In cases such as Schiavo’s, Proctor said, there are some who would want to preserve something that is little more than an organism.
"This is really deep theological stuff, what is life, and what defines a person," she said.
One of the larger issues, Proctor said, one that people are often reluctant to talk about, is the way that health care is rationed in the United States.
If everyone is left on life support as long as someone is willing to pay, it will cause a drain on medical resources.
"Every time we make a decision like this, we kind of lock somebody else out," she said. "We have to look at the larger picture. We have to put those resources where we are sure they can do something, or have a good chance to do something."
During an interview before his presentation, Pavone said such ideas are an insult to human dignity.
"Is every patient going to be given the same human care and respect, or are we going to start discriminating?" Pavone asked.
Officials at Allen County Right-To-Life said they had scheduled Pavone’s visit awhile ago and had no idea how fortuitous the timing of his speech would be to the debate surrounding Schiavo’s death.
"For too long both sides have screamed at each other," said Cathie Humbarger, executive director of the group, which opposes abortion rights.
"It is time for a fair and open debate on life issues."