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BISHOP FRADE ON TERRY SCHIAVO: "Family should make ultimate decision"

BISHOP FRADE ON TERRY SCHIAVO: "Family should make ultimate decision not government"

A Pastoral Letter to all the churches and the faithful from Leo Frade, Bishop of Southeast Florida

March 28, 2005 Monday in Easter Week

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God the Father and from our Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. As we begin this Easter Season we rejoice in the knowledge that our Lord Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death and giving life to those in the tomb.

Yet as I write this Pastoral Letter, we are challenged by an unavoidable reminder of death in the struggles of a family facing the death of their spouse, daughter and sister. Terri Schiavo is our neighbor, a fellow-Floridian, and our sister in Christ.

By now we have all heard how this young woman sustained severe brain damage from lack of oxygen after collapsing at home in 1990 with heart failure, due to a chemical imbalance believed to have been brought on by an eating disorder. We know that the many doctors who have examined and treated her have determined that she is in a persistent vegetative state with no hope for recovery. Tests have repeatedly shown massive shrinkage of the cerebral cortex and no electrical activity coming from the brain.

Because Terri Schiavo gave no instructions about whether she would want to have life-sustaining treatment continued in such a situation, her family has been left with a painful decision to make. In 1998, Terri's husband petitioned the courts to allow the removal of a feeding tube that serves as her means of hydration and nutrition. Although the decisions of both state and federal courts since that time have been overwhelmingly in favor of removing the tube, Terri's husband and parents have been engaged in a bitter dispute about her care, both state and federal legislators have become involved in the case and the private suffering of this family has been subjected to 24-hour news coverage.

Unfortunately, a decision like the one with which the relatives of Terri Schiavo have been struggling is being faced in many hospitals at this very moment in our country and around the world. I am sure that many of our faithful are suffering, have suffered or will face the pain of making such sad decisions in the future. I encountered such a tragic and painful moment myself, at the deathbed of my comatose mother, when my sister and I were forced to decide whether to continue care or to accept our mother's condition as irreparable. I understand the pain and suffering of the relatives of Terri Schiavo and how hard such a decision must be for them, as it was for my sister and me.

Medical science continues to provide us with many miracles of healing, but it has also given us these painful choices. As Christians, we must be ready to face these difficult questions when they arise in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We must remain faithful to our Christian belief in the sanctity of each human life as a cherished creation of God, but we must also reject an attitude that disregards the inevitability of physical death. Our Easter faith assures us that the death of the body is not the end of life.

There is a difference between allowing a terminally ill person to die of natural causes, even by the withholding or withdrawing of heroic and extraordinary life-sustaining treatments, and the initiating of actions that will cause someone's death. I believe that allowing death to take its course is morally appropriate when death is inevitable and will obviously be the natural outcome. We must be aware that our good intentions in blocking this process can rob the patient of the dignity of a peaceful and natural death. We must not be trapped by our own technology that can prolong dying without really extending life.

I totally agree with our Church's decision at General Convention in 1991, where a resolution was passed stating, "there is no moral obligation to prolong the act of dying by extraordinary means and at all costs if such dying person is ill and has no reasonable expectation of recovery."

However, the same resolution stated, "it is morally wrong and unacceptable to take a human life in order to relieve the suffering caused by incurable illness. This would include the intentional shortening of another person's life by the use of a lethal dose of medication or poison, the use of lethal weapons, homicidal acts, and other forms of active euthanasia."

I must note that terms like passive and active euthanasia are sometimes used incorrectly to refer to the discontinuation of extraordinary means of preserving life when there is no hope of recovery. This process is not in the proper medical and ethical sense euthanasia. Instead it belongs to the responsible care that we, medically and ethically, are due to patients that appear to have entered an irrevocable process of dying.

I emphatically state that the family should be the proper context for decision-making in this type of determination, and that the government should not intrude in even a surrogate role. Our Church in 1991 expressed its deep conviction that both state and national government should guarantee the individual's rights and provide for the withholding or withdrawing of life-sustaining systems, where the decision has been arrived at with proper safeguards against abuse. Our courts are the proper vehicles to achieve these safeguards and the intrusion by politicians is extremely inappropriate.

This is the time for wisdom and forbearance in our nation, as we support with our prayers not only Terri Schiavo and her family but also the many families who are dealing with painful decisions about life and death. Let us also pray for a reconciliation of all men and women who hold different opinions on these matters. And let us always work to reconcile our own hearts, so that we may live in concord and peace in this country, despite our differences, "respecting the dignity of every human being", as we have promised in our Baptismal Covenant.

Finally, I call on all the clergy, vestries and other church leaders to encourage all members of our flock to provide for advance written directives concerning medical treatment and durable powers of attorney, setting forth medical declarations that make known a person's wishes concerning the continuation or withholding or removing of life sustaining systems. I also remind you that information on these kinds of documents, as well as help with preparation of our wills and other end of life considerations to provide for our families and our church, are available from the Southeast Florida Episcopal Foundation. The Foundation's president, Mr. Charlie Ring, can be reached at 561-622-7944 or by email at Charlie@episfoundation.org.

In the words of St. Paul to the church at Corinth, "put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet each other with the peace of the Lord. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you".

+Leo Frade is the Bishop of Southeast Florida

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