Terri Schiavo’s sister urges marchers to protect all life

COLUMBIA — Each year since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, South Carolinians have marched to the steps of the Statehouse to proclaim their love for life and their right to protect it.

This year more than 1,000 people marched down Gervais Street for the Stand Up for Life rally Jan. 21. They wanted to make their voices heard and to hear guest speaker Suzanne Schindler Vitadamo, the sister of Terri Schindler Schiavo. Last March, 41-year-old Terri Schiavo was denied the basic right to food and water, and her parents, siblings and friends were forced to watch her die a slow and tortuous death from dehydration.

Bishop Robert J. Baker was one of many who travelled to the state capital for the rally. In his opening prayer Bishop Baker asked, “Oh God of Light and Life and Love, please be with this great assemblage of people, gathered today to give you praise and to thank you for the gift of Life that precedes all other gifts from you …Help us to find today a new resolve, and new hope and a deepened commitment to bring your Gospel of Life into a culture of death.”

Lisa Van Riper, president of South Carolina Citizens for Life, the organization that sponsors the event, recalled a time when legislators would have laughed at the idea of involuntary euthanasia of the disabled, yet it came to pass with Terri’s murder on March 31, 2005.

“When you begin to disregard the sanctity of life at one stage, that basic philosophy will begin to erode the sanctity of life at other stages,” Van Riper said.

“Euthanasia has become a remedy for disabilities … and we are now at the bottom of the slippery slope of Roe,” she added.

Vitadamo spoke with clarity and conviction as she denounced the misconceptions created by the secular media — for example, that her sister Terri had been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). PVS, according to recent studies, is misdiagnosed 50 percent of the time, and there were conflicting opinions about Terri.

“Terri was not terminal; she was a healthy woman,” Vitadamo said. “She did not need a respirator. She did not have bulimia and she did not have a heart attack.”

Vitadamo said it is undisputed among the scientific community that PVS can only be diagnosed in a living person and cannot be determined in an autopsy. Yet newspapers and television stations falsely stated that the autopsy supported the PVS claims of Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo. (Schiavo married his partner of 11 years on the day Vitadamo was speaking in Columbia.)

To put the autopsy in perspective, Vitadamo quoted Father Frank Pavone, executive director of Priests for Life, who was with the family during their difficult time and who was vocal about the “atrophy” of compassion in the case.

“The autopsy [states] that Terri’s brain was ‘profoundly atrophied,’ and only half the normal size,” Father Pavone said. “Fine. If that’s what the experts tell us, there is no problem believing them. But what does that mean — that she was only half-human, only half a person, or that she had only half the rights that the rest of us have? That is the conclusion that we must never accept. That is a conclusion that does not come from an autopsy, but from a callous disregard for human life.”

Vitadamo and her family have established a fund to help prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again — the tortuous killing that would have been a criminal offense had it been done to an animal. She repeated the remark of a Dutch journalist who said that “it only took one generation to take a war crime and turn it into an act of compassion.”

Vitadamo said that what happened to Terri is a wake-up call for everyone. Much education is needed so action can be taken to stop the disregard for human life. She suggests that people replace their “Living Will,” which can have loopholes or language that permit the withholding of food and water, with a “Will to Live” that provides better protection and that is recommended by the National Right to Life Organization. The “Will to Live” can be downloaded from SCCL’s Web page at http://sclife.org.

“[Terri] taught me that life isn’t fair and that we’re all here on this earth for a reason,” Vitadamo said, “Most importantly, she taught me where there is life, there is hope.”

Catholic pro-life supporters came from around the state by bus and car for the rally. College and high school students were out in full force, and many went on to the national march held in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 23. Students from Cardinal Newman and Bishop England were among the participants. Danny Dorsel, co-principal at Cardinal Newman, said that more than 80 of his high school students went to the nation’s capital. He said that the number of students attending has dramatically increased over the years.

“Two years ago we had four students go, last year we had 27 go and this year over 80,” he told The Miscellany.

Charlie Boyle and Jack Norton, two ROTC students from the University of South Carolina, attended the local rally.

Boyle said his mother helped organize the first March for Life in Washington, D.C. He is a native of Maryland and said he and his 11 siblings have always been a part of the march.

“It is good to see more and more young people,” he said. “Being one of 12 children in a large, Irish Catholic family, I was raised to be pro-life. I probably went to my first march at 6, and I had to support this rally.”

Norton said he was there because of the cause.

“The most important right is the right to life,” he said. “This is a cause worth fighting for.”