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Faculty members address controversial Schiavo case

Justin Tardiff | Thursday, March 31, 2005

While temperatures rose throughout the region Wednesday afternoon, temperaments were heightened in the Notre Dame Law School courtroom during a faculty discussion of the controversial Terri Schiavo case. Before a full audience and television coverage, four members of the law school faculty – John Robinson, A.J. Bellia, Richard Garnett and John Finnis – presented brief accounts of specific aspects of the case.Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny of the law school and the theology department moderated the discussion.”This case raises a number of issues from the perspective of morality and the perspective of law,” she said. “Sometimes as we sort through these issues, it can become confusing, so we at the law school wanted to facilitate a discussion [on the case].”Associate Professor Robinson initiated the discussion by addressing the question, “What does the Catholic tradition say about artificial nutrition and hydration for patients in a persistent vegetative state?” “Beginning in the 16th century in Spain, Catholic moral teaching on medicine developed a distinction between ordinary and extraordinary care,” he said. “Every person and especially every Catholic must use ordinary means to preserve his own life, but there is no obligation to use extraordinary means.”Robinson went on to enumerate the ways in which care could be categorized as extraordinary.”If the means used to preserve life were too painful, then they are extraordinary,” he said. “In the age before anesthetics, refusing amputation was justified even in the face of death. Care could also be considered too expensive or too repugnant to be ordinary.”Robinson also mentioned that in 2004, Pope John Paul II stated that “the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act,” rendering such provision morally necessary.Associate Professor Bellia followed with a presentation on the question, “Can and should congress give the federal courts jurisdiction to hear a case already decided by the Florida courts?”Bellia referred to a statement made by Bishop John D’Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese in which the Bishop echoed the Pope’s comment that food and water represent an ordinary means of preserving life. “The question arises, why should we spend time discussing who has authority if what is happening in Florida is morally wrong? Why not just take whatever means necessary to change it?” he said.Bellia proceeded to emphasize the importance to abiding by the law, even in such excruciating cases as that of Schiavo. “The rule of law is not an amoral concept,” he said. “It is what creates an order that allows each of us to pursuer certain ends in this life. To appreciate all aspects of this case, we must examine the rule of law.”He then discussed various legal aspects of the interplay between the state and federal courts. “This case is notable because Congress gave an inferior federal court the power to review judgments of a state court,” he said. “This is a matter that has never been tested, and it is a substantial issue.”Associate Professor Garnett developed dialogue on the subject, “Were Terri Schiavo’s religious-freedom rights violated?”Garnett noted three different dimensions of the problem in this case.”The first [dimension] is whether Ms. Schiavo’s access to the sacraments is being provided,” he said. “My understanding is that she was given Holy Communion at the time the tubes were removed by way of a drop of wine.”The second aspect of the case deals with religious freedom case that the Schindlers [Schiavo’s parents] submitted, Garnett said. He discussed the complaints that had been brought under the 2000 statute Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects the religious freedoms of people living in certain types of government institutions.Garnett’s final point dealt with the role of religious freedom debates in the public forum. “The religious believer, like everyone else, has the right to get out in the public square,” he said. “Nothing is turning us into a theocracy just because some people who are trying to save Terri Schiavo happen to be religious.”Professor Finnis developed the dialogue on the subject, “How do law and morality relate in the Schiavo case?”He explained that it is important to decide whether the benefits of caring for an individual like Terri Schiavo outweigh the burdens of continuing care.”The law must uphold fairness against partiality,” he said. “The comparative burdens and benefits of caring for patients in such condition are similar to those of caring for a senile, severely retarded or hopelessly insane person.”He discussed the issue of whether the continuance of life in a vegetative state is an undignified existence that would justify the removal of feeding devices.After the presentations concluded, the floor was opened to the audience for questions.