The Culture of Death

Concerning the vexing drama unfolding at a hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida, which national religious figure called the decision to remove Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube “unnecessary,” “cruel,” and “immoral”? Was it Pat Robertson? Jerry Falwell? Randall Terry? No, it was that paragon of rightwing jihad: Jesse Jackson.

“I feel so passionate about this injustice being done, how unnecessary it is to deny her a feeding tube, water, not even ice to be used for her parched lips,” Jackson told the press. “This is a moral issue, and it transcends politics and family disputes.”

Jackson, usually not counted as leader of the prolife movement, sees in sharp relief what has become blurry for so many people. Human life is precious, and ending it without just cause is a civil rights issue.

There are many questions surrounding the Schiavo case. On the personal side, did Terri—who left no living will—really tell her husband Michael years ago that she wanted “no tubes”? Why then did he not tell anyone until years and years after she went into the hospital? Why is Michael Schiavo still considered her husband and guardian when he has forsaken his marital vows, shacked up with another woman, and fathered children with her? Even if Michael Schiavo is telling the truth and is trying to do the best he can in a tragic situation, it looks bad.

On the medical side, despite a credible hypothesis from a Mayo Clinic neurologist that Terri may not be in a persistent vegetative state, why are those who want her to die so incurious about her condition? Yes, Michael Schiavo has agreed to an autopsy after she dies, but why not an MRI while she lives? If Terri doesn’t want to live, why has she held on for 12 days so far without food and water?

Another doctor has been quoted as saying Terri could possibly drink water by mouth. If so, then denying it to her would not be an act of compassion, but murder. (According to Michael Schiavo, she said, “no tubes,” not “no water.”) Why then have the authorities arrested dozens of civil rights protesters seeking to get a bottle of water to her parched lips? And if, as Michael Schiavo and attorney George Felos contend, Terri Schiavo’s death process is painless because she is no more than a vegetable, why are they allowing her to receive morphine injections?

And why do they ignore or dismiss examples of people who have recovered their faculties—such as Sarah Scantlin of Kansas, who recently came out of a coma after 20 years? (Schiavo is not even comatose, much less in a persistent vegetative state.)

Before the feeding tube was pulled, Barbara Weller, an attorney representing Terri’s parents, visited her. Sitting at Terri’s bedside, Weller said, “Terri, if you could only say ‘I want to live,’ this whole thing could be over today.” Weller describes what happened next:

“To my enormous shock and surprise, Terri’s eyes opened wide, she looked me square in the face, and with a look of great concentration, she said, ‘Ahhhhhhh.’ Then, seeming to summon up all the strength she had, she virtually screamed, ‘Waaaaaaaa.’ . . . At that point, Terri had a look of anguish on her face that I had never seen before and she seemed to be struggling hard, but was unable to complete the sentence. She became very frustrated and began to cry. I was horrified that I was obviously causing Terri so much anguish . . . . I promised Terri I would tell the world that she had tried to say, ‘I want to live.’”

Meanwhile, doctors pushing for Terri’s death assure the world that such responses are random and involuntary. But, just to be sure, why won’t Michael Schiavo allow his wife to be examined one last time? Why the rush?

Why has nearly every court involved moved Terri inexorably toward a slow, painful death of starvation and dehydration—rejecting every plea from the woman’s parents (who would gladly assume responsibility for her care, if only allowed to), Congress, and the president? What is the harm in looking at new facts? And why do judges interpret the law so narrowly in this case—with a narrowness and closed-mindedness to new information that lead to only one outcome: death? Why are they so inclined to give convicted murderers the benefit of the doubt in capital cases, but not Terri Schiavo in this one, when close family members disagree on the facts?

I propose that the answer to all these questions is that we are living in a culture of death, in which death is often seen as the best option—or the only one. In such a culture, the bias is toward death, not life. Of course, the culture of death has been in full view ever since the Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in 1973, leading to the legal killing of 45 million unborn children so far. But most of those victims have been safely hidden from public view. Not so Terri Schiavo.

As President Bush said when signing the federal law asking the federal court to review the case from the ground up, “In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life.” In their arrogance, the judges rebuffed this common-sense presumption.

But the culture of death is not just about runaway judges—would that it were that simple! Unfortunately, depending on whether you believe the polls, most Americans look at Terri Schiavo’s pitiful condition and say Michael Schiavo is doing the right thing. They say that the president, pro-lifers, and Terri’s parents should butt out.

According to a survey by USA Today and CNN, 56 percent of respondents said removing Terri’s feeding tube was appropriate. Fully 70 percent said congressional legislation moving the dispute to federal court was inappropriate. Given a spouse in the same condition, 61 percent say they would remove the feeding tube.

Remember, we are not talking about extraordinary medical attention such as a respirator, which is an ethics question for another day. We are talking about withholding food and water, which we all need to survive. As the pope said in a 2004 address to an international gathering of medical professionals, “the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act.” News reports say the pope is practicing what he preaches, receiving nourishment via a feeding tube inserted in his nose.

If America is a Christian nation, as is often claimed, then why this gulf between public opinion and traditional church teaching? Again, the culture of death, heavily influenced by the this-worldly outlook of secularism, has taken over. Our greatest fear is no longer death and judgment in the next world, but suffering in this one.

Writing in his new book, Unspeakable, philosopher Os Guinness says, “Today, . . . many people deny that evil has any objective reality at all. The only evil left, in this view, is the fact that human beings suffer. Put simply, evil was once the source of suffering, but for many people today, suffering—especially extreme and apparently senseless suffering—is the only source of evil.”

Thus, according to this logic, we defeat evil by killing the patient. Welcome to the culture of death.

About Stan Guthrie

Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is God's Story in 66 Verses. He also is author of All that Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy. He is co-author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Besides authoring, writing, and editing books, Stan is a literary agent, bringing together good authors, good books, and good publishers. Stan writes the monthly Priorities colum for He has appeared on National Public Radio's €œTell Me More,€ WGN's Milt Rosenberg program, and many Christian shows, including The Eric Metaxas Show and Moody Radio'€™s €œNew Day Florida.€ A licensed minister and an inspirational speaker, he served as moderator for the Christian Book Expo panel discussion, Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?
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