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by William E. May


On September 23 2004, the Florida Supreme Court declared “Terri’s Law” unconstitutional, alleging that it violated the separation of powers. Fortunately, Florida Governor Bush is appealing this truly appalling decision which in effect justifies mercy killing.

“Terri’s Law” mandated that food and hydration be provided by tubal means to Terri Schiavo because doing so is needed in order to prevent her from dying by dehydration and starvation—very nasty ways of dying. It is true that if someone is in the process of dying, for instance, if one is in the final stage of pancreatic cancer and will die in a day or so, and if such a person no longer feels like eating, it would not be appropriate to force such a person to receive food and hydration by tubes because of the burdens this would impose in needlessly prolonging this person’s dying by means that are not now appropriate because of their burdensomeness.

But this is not true of Terri Schiavo. She is definitely not dying or in the process of dying, nor does she suffer from any fatal pathology such as cancer in its terminal stages that could make tubal feeding excessively burdensome. Terri is simply a fellow human person unable to feed herself—much as a newborn baby. She has suffered severe trauma to her brain, but she is in a stable condition and there is no imminent danger of death so long as she receives the nourishment and hydration that all living human persons need if they are to continue living. Deliberately to withhold such nourishment and hydration would obviously be the cause of her death. Her death would not be caused by some underlying pathological condition such as cancer in its terminal stages. Deliberately to deprive her of the food and hydration needed to prevent her death by dehydration/starvation would be to kill an innocent person because other people--her husband and apparently the Florida Supreme Court--think that she would be better off dead than alive because in their opinion her life is no longer of any worth but is now itself a terrible burden from which death is an allegedly merciful release. It is legitimate to judge that some treatments are excessively burdensome and that, therefore, they can be withheld or withdrawn so that an underlying fatal pathology such as pancreatic cancer can run its course. But it is never legitimate to judge that a person’s life is so burdensome that one is doing the person a favor by killing him or her because life, even if burdened, is still something good. Life, for a living person, is that person’s very being.

“Terri’s Law” rightly seeks to protect the good of Terri’s life and to insure that the protection afforded her by the law against homicide is not taken away from her. The Court is seeking precisely to do this. May wiser courts on appeal reverse this tragic judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.


William E. May is the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.