An examination into the case of Theresa Schiavo demonstrates both sides of the fierce medico-political debate over the sanctity versus quality of life. Shortly after her marriage in 1990, Mrs. Schiavo suffered cardiac arrest which deprived her brain of oxygen for approximately eleven minutes, more than five minutes longer than medical experts believe is possible without consequence of serious and irreversible brain damage. She fell into a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Thus began a fifteen year battle over the sanctity and quality of Mrs. Schiavo’s life.
Mr. Schiavo maintained that it was Mrs. Schiavo’s wish that she not be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state. Her parents fought to keep her alive believing that some miracle would bring her out of the PVS. Experts on both sides of the debate weighed in. Bioethicists, experts in the treatment of terminally and chronically ill patients, overall agreed with Mr. Schiavo that prolonging her life would not lead to a productive life as she would never recover. They further found that he was acting in her best interests, not for want of personal gain.
Meanwhile, politicians attempted to exact their personal beliefs into the medical decisions that needed to be made. They went so far as to enact “Terry’s Law” replacing State court jurisdiction with Federal District Court jurisdiction. This law gave Mrs. Schiavo’s parents a way around the lower court’s ruling upholding Mr. Schiavo’s rights as her guardian and next of kin. However, this law was later ruled unconstitutional. As a result, Mr. Schiavo’s medical decisions were eventually fulfilled and Mrs. Schiavo was permitted to pass peacefully and naturally. The sanctity of Mrs. Schiavo’s life was preserved by weighing the quality of life she was reduced to living.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “sanctity” as “the holiness of life and character”; whereas “quality” is defined as “degree of excellence and superiority in kind”. Sanctity of life is a spiritual and objective concept. Quality of life is a physical and subjective concept. While both concepts innately differ, they are consistent in that both are sacred to their beholder. One has an inalienable right to life, both in terms of years and in the quality (value) one seeks to attain. However, as represented by longevity, general well-being is affected by quality of life. Without one, the other would cease to exist.
Religious pundits would assert that life is a sacred gift from God and that life in and of itself is not determined by its quality. If life were no longer sacred, then there would be no problem with abortion, physician assisted suicide, assisted reproductive technologies, or even euthanasia. In John Breck’s book The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics, the framework is laid for the God-world-anthropic interrelationship. He explains that understanding life as a sacred gift, divine and unique, makes possible a quality of life...