Sixteen years ago, Terri Schiavo died.
I remember that when she was in the news, I heard the term “vegetative state” for the first time. It immediately struck me as a completely inappropriate term for any person since it explicitly dehumanizes someone by applying an incorrect analogy. Initially the adjective meant, “endowed with the power of growth” but it has come to denote exactly the opposite in public bioethics – that a person is incapable of any significant growth or development. We do not tolerate those who would dehumanize others by calling them cockroaches, so we ought not tolerate the dehumanizing language that refers to persons as “vegetables.”
When I think about Terri Schiavo, I think especially about the impact that her life and death had on my friend Taylor Hyatt. She wrote this great piece several years ago titled, “13 days that changed my life: Remembering Terri Schiavo.”
In the piece, Taylor reflects on how Terri’s story captivated her when she was in Grade 7.
The news anchor used words like “coma,” “non-responsive,” and even “vegetable,” but the video footage of Terri looking at her mom told me otherwise. “Her eyes are open, she’s smiling,” I thought. “She doesn’t look comatose to me.” What was going on? I had grown up alongside people with communication and mobility impairments, and I had seen feeding tubes before. Wait a second… Terri’s feeding tube was going to be removed so that she’d die? Even more horrifying – she would starve? I was outraged. No human being should be treated like that, and Terri’s disability added insult to injury. Didn’t we all need food and water to survive? Why was giving it to her through a stomach tube so extraordinary? Suddenly, I was thrust into a whole new world of politics – bioethics – and what it meant to be a person.
[…] March 31, 2005, would mark the 13th day Terri had gone without water or food. I remember nothing about my school day. It was probably unremarkable, as Grade 7 tends to be. Yet I will never forget the horrible sense of urgency that came over me as I walked in my back door. I made a beeline for the living room couch and turned the TV to channel 36. Forget the house rule about taking off my shoes and unpacking my bags. I had more important things to do. The news anchors spent 10 minutes discussing taxes and elections, but all I could think was “Hurry up, where’s Terri?” Then the 3:30 breaking news: “At approximately 9:05 this morning, Terri Schiavo died.”
[…] Over those two weeks, I had come to the conclusion that if God had a plan for Terri in her limitations, then He must have one for me too. I promised myself and the One who made both of us that I would do whatever I could to stop anyone else from being starved. Remember, I was still in middle school then. Keeping myself informed was my only option. I followed Terri’s family and kept up with stories of other medically vulnerable people.
This is precisely what I find so noteworthy – how Taylor’s life has been completely transformed by Terri’s story. Taylor is an awesome advocate for persons in all the vulnerability and limitation that human embodiedness entails.
And Taylor says, “I will spend my life doing what I can to combat injustice, in memory of Terri.”
The fact that nobody has ever dedicated their life to combating injustice in memory of a vegetable reveals to us that the use of this term when speaking about persons is always wildly inappropriate.
I love how Taylor says in another place, “Presume competence. Presume they have something to offer, and they don’t only need to be accommodated.”
The philosopher Robert Spaemann is compelling in addressing various positions that would seek to eject members from the human family:
When we become conscious that we are hungry, our hunger does not begin only with our consciousness of it. Rather, the same hunger that was first unconscious then becomes conscious. Each of us says, “I was conceived on such and such a date and born on such and such a date,” and children ask their mother, “What was it like when I was still in your tummy?” The personal pronoun “I” refers not to the consciousness of an “I,” which none of us had in the womb, but rather to the nascent living being, the man who only later learned to say “I.” And has learned to say “I” only because other human beings first addressed him as “thou” before he could say “I.” Even if this being never learns to say “I” because of some disability, he belongs as a son or daughter, brother or sister to a human family, and therefore to the human family, which is a community of persons. There is only one admissible criterion for human personhood: belonging biologically to the human family.
Through relationship, through understanding that persons always live in relation to one another, we can see that every person, through every moment of his or her existence, has something to offer.