Extraordinary Means

The passions of those on either side of the Terri Schiavo tragedy are not hard to understand. Still, whether Michael Schiavo was right to have his wife’s feeding tube removed is not a judgment that people outside the family should second-guess too quickly or easily. The choices involved cannot simply be reduced to the slogan “err on the side of life” or to accusations of euthanasia or death by starvation. Contested by Terri Schiavo’s parents, Michael Schiavo’s decision was rightfully adjudicated in the courts, not in Congress, the Florida governor’s office, or the White House.

Given the inherently complex nature, both medically and morally, of Terri Schiavo’s persistent vegetative state (PVS), the demagoguery of some of her self-appointed advocates, especially certain elements of the prolife community and the Republican Party, has been appalling. Almost as bad has been the failure of the Catholic hierarchy to present the full depth and subtlety of Catholic teaching on this difficult question.

For Catholics familiar with the church’s traditional and very nuanced teaching on end-of-life care, the attempt made by Terri Schiavo’s parents to argue in court that the Catholic Church now forbids the removal of nutrition and hydration from PVS patients was misguided and perplexing. True, not a few have claimed that a recent statement by John Paul II clarified Catholic teaching about providing nutrition and...

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