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.
In 1993, John Paul II inaugurated the World Day of the Sick to be celebrated each year on February 11th. He wanted the annual day to serve as “a special occasion for growth, with an attitude of listening, reflection, and effective commitment in the face of the great mystery of pain and illness” and he specifically addressed all those who are sick, calling them “the main actors of this World Day.”
What did he mean by this?
There is a philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas who said, “The relationship with the face is immediately ethical in nature. The face is what you cannot kill, or at least in the sense that says: ‘thou shalt not kill’.”
And so, whenever I see a news article accompanied by an image of an elderly person’s hand, or a syringe, or an empty hospital hallway, this quotation always comes to my mind. How different it is to actually see faces. It is almost as if seeing faces (even if only as images) is to be given a different set of facts altogether.