October 7, 2005

The late Terri Schiavo’s sister speaks out against ‘right-to-die’ movement

By Mary Ann Wyand

pro-life dinner 1The “so-called right to die” movement in contemporary society is dramatically affecting public opinion about respect for the sanctity and dignity of life, Suzanne Vitadamo of St. Petersburg, Fla., told more than 850 pro-life supporters attending the 23rd annual Celebrate Life dinner on Sept. 27 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.

Vitadamo is the younger sister of the late Terri Schindler Schiavo, a 41-year-old brain-damaged woman who died on March 31 of court-ordered dehydration requested by Michael Schiavo, her husband.

Terri Schiavo’s tragic story generated international attention and prompted lobbying efforts by countless pro-life supporters, including the late Pope John Paul II and Father Frank Pavone of Staten Island, N.Y., the founder and director of Priests for Life.

“We as a society are standing on a cliff with two clear and utterly polarized choices that we can make,” Vitadamo said. “Either we value each other in spite of disability or we despise each other based on those limitations.”

During her keynote address at the fundraising dinner sponsored by Right to Life of Indianapolis, Vitadamo recounted her family’s legal struggle to gain custody of Terri Schiavo so they could lovingly care for her for the rest of her life.

“After more than 12 years of struggles by my family to protect the life of … Terri Schindler Schiavo, my perfectly healthy sister died on March 31 of this year from the effects of dehydration,” Vitadamo said. “The Circuit Court of Pinellas County, Florida, ordered that my sister die this unnatural and gruesome death by commanding that a simple ­ gastric feeding tube be forcably taken away from her without her consent, and that she be allowed to deteriorate to death.”

Vitadamo said her sister lived in a neurologically compromised state for reasons that are still unknown.

“Terri was supported only by a feeding tube, nothing else,” she said. “Terri could breathe on her own and had no machines ... hooked up to her. Other than my sister’s brain damage, she was a physically healthy young woman.

“My brother and my parents and I wanted nothing more from anyone than to be granted permission to care for her for the span of her natural life,” she said. “Terri tenaciously fought for her life for more than 13 days after being deprived of the most basic natural and constant need that you and I all share—the need for nourishment, for food and water. She was deprived of those basic things for one reason only—to cause unnatural and untimely death.”

pro-life dinner 2Vitadamo said her sister was not terminally ill and was not dying until her food and water were taken away in March.

“She was not succumbing to any killer disease,” Vitadamo said. “She was disabled. She was dependent on others, but she was still very much alive—a woman and a person—in our eyes. I was forced to watch my older sister suffer through the very real and very grisly effects of terminal dehydration.”

With each passing day, she said, her sister appeared weaker, thinner and more frightened.

“I watched as my family begged for her life,” Vitadamo said, “and watched as health care professionals turned a deaf ear to her suffering. I listened to well-known proponents to this so-called right to die coax news audiences into the belief that what my sister endured was a gentle, peaceful and euphoric demise. I sat on the corner of her bed and held her thinning hands, trying so hard to understand that what I was witnessing was actually real.”

When her sister died, Vitadamo said, “she took a very tangible piece of me with her.”

Michael Schiavo and Terri Schindler were married in 1984, she said. “On Feb. 25, 1990, Terri collapsed due to mysterious circumstances, causing her brain to go without oxygen, which led to her profound brain damage.

“My family actually began our battle to save Terri in 1993,” she said. “Since 1997, when we first learned that Michael Schiavo was going to try to remove Terri’s feeding tube, my family did everything we could to stop him from using his power as Terri’s guardian to have her starved and dehydrated to death.”

Throughout this legal battle, Vitadamo said, “the media played a major role in Terri’s situation. Pretty much since the beginning, the media … distorted the facts, omitted key details, failed to verify statements by Michael Schiavo and his attorney, and consistently wrote that this was a right-to-die case and that Michael Schiavo was acting in the best interests of Terri, something that is absolutely untrue.

“… Most alarming is how the media continues to use their influence to persuade the apathetic public that involuntary euthanasia should be permitted,” she said, “dangerously advancing the viewpoint of this pro-death movement that has taken hold of our country.”

The Schindler family recently started a pro-life foundation in Terri Schiavo’s memory to educate people and lobby against euthanasia. In September, they announced plans to write a book about her life and the truth about her death.

St. Luke parishioner Joan Byrum of Indianapolis, the president of Right to Life of Indianapolis, said after the dinner that she was “really overwhelmed [by listening to] how it would be to have your loved one die like that before your eyes and be able to do nothing.” †


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