Caring at the End

Schiavo & Catholic Teaching

The old adage that hard cases make bad law is often true, but it is also true that hard cases can help crystallize fundamental moral issues. Thus, at the risk of reviving the painful passions that swirled around Terri Schiavo’s death, I want to ask whether that incredibly hard case helps us identify core moral questions about end-of-life decisions.

Can we learn anything morally useful from the Schiavo case? For example, was the strong, public opposition among some prominent Catholics, including some bishops, to the removal of Schiavo’s feeding and hydration tubes an indication that church teaching about end-of-life care has changed?

To answer these questions, we need to look carefully at the claims of those who condemned the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube as morally repugnant, for behind the highly charged rhetoric that frequently accompanied such condemnations rests a core moral conviction that bears examination. Consider, for example, the claims made by various hierarchical officials and their spokespersons, both here and abroad. Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, said that it would be “murder” to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube. Cathy Cleaver Ruse, the director of planning and information for the Prolife Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), suggested that Schiavo was executed, and Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the head of the Pontifical Council for Health Care,...

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