How “Pro-Life” Interference Harms Our Medical Autonomy
Cw: reproductive violence, “pro-life”, death and dying, medical, s*icide, diet culture
The supposed “pro-life” movement has always been intriguing to me. I’m a Catholic American of Sicilian descent and “pro-life ideology” is quite important to Catholics. I can’t truly recall my family ever being staunch about pro-life ideals and my more immediate family is more liberal anyway, so it’s probably a laissez-faire approach to the issue. Because I am a cisgender man, and I’m gay, usually partnered with other cisgender men, the topic of reproductive justice isn’t necessarily on the forefront of my life’s “direct” issues. Yet, it is a topic I am so passionate about.
I think it is difficult to ignore the impact of the supposed “pro-life” movement, and similar movements, on queer communities. It is often based on a supposed central morality, steeped in religion, in the United States, typically Christianity. There is no way to look at the “pro-life” movement and not see the similarities in its supporters attitudes of gay, queer and trans people. Our rights, our identities, our existence. Sure, there probably “pro-life” LGBTQ allies and even LGBTQ members, but humanity is complex that way.
But the “pro-life” movement has certainly never actually been about morality, even if certain participants may believe it so. It is fundamentally more about gender roles and Christian normative principles — and each time those principles are challenged, we are waging an ideological war on Christianity and so-called American values, they claim.
But there is another fundamental reason I oppose the “pro-life” movement. Its deep inability to mind it’s own business and respect the medical autonomy of others is particularly cruel.
Healthcare should be a decision between an individual, or in their cognitive absence, a trusted proxy, and the medical care providers. When the “pro-life” movement interferes, whether in the legal courts, the court of public opinion or by matter of law/norms, we all stand to suffer.
That ought not be a subject to debate but it continues so — and not just with abortion care.
Karen Ann Quinlan was born on March 29, 1954 and was adopted by Joseph and Julia Quinlan, a Roman Catholic New Jersey family, a few weeks after birth. Quinlan probably did not dream of the fame she would eventually become known for. In April 1975, Quinlan moved out of her parents loving home to share a home with roommates. She was 21 and life was going about normal — except she had chosen to go on a crash diet. Abstaining from eating, she attended a party with friends and consumed alcohol and Valium. This made her feel unwell, so she was taken home and helped into bed. When her friends checked on her in a mere matter of 15 minutes, she wasn’t breathing. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation brought her back to breathing but she would never regain consciousness.
April 15, 1975 would become the launch of Julia Quinlan’s joy turned to sorrow (as she words it). But what would also happen is a tragedy no family should ever have to experience, especially so publicly.
Quinlan, only 21, was diagnosed to be in a persistent vegetative state, surviving only by artificial means, including a ventilator and a feeding apparatus.
In September 1975, the Quinlan’s, believing (rightfully) that there was no hope for her daughter’s prognosis requested that their daughters life persevering apparatus’ be removed. This would, naturally, result in Quinlan’s inevitable death. However, the court appointed guardians rejected the family’s request and stated this would be homicide.
This case raised major questions about bioethics and it no longer was an issue between a hurting family and an unconscious young daughter. Quinlan became a national figure and is an early trailblazer in the right to die conversation.
The Quinlan’s argued, interestingly enough, Catholic doctrine to support their case: “Pope Pius XII spoke on this topic in 1957, saying that while food and water constitute ordinary care, a respirator or other means of resuscitating or otherwise keeping someone alive are extraordinary. So, the doctor and family are not legally (or morally) forced to keep someone alive while in a coma or other vegetative state. Quinlan’s parents wanted their daughter’s life to be in God’s hands. By giving her “ordinary care” (i.e., food and water only), they believed they weren’t going against God’s plan by keeping her alive.”
In what should always be an intimate and private moment, the family’s case, and their decision became a matter of both law and public scrutiny. With the doctors being threatened with prosecution, they simply could not comply with the family’s request. However, on March 31, 1976, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard the family’s case and ultimately authorized the removal of Quinlan’s ventilator. To everyone’s surprise, she was able to breath on her own — and she remained in a vegetative state until her death by pneumonia on June 11, 1985 at the age of 31.
Her case would not be the last.
Nancy Cruzan was born on July 20, 1957 and at the age of 25, on January 11, 1983, Cruzan lost control of her vehicle on Missouri hill. When she was discovered by paramedics, she had no vital signs and spent three weeks in a coma. Upon emerging from the coma, she was diagnosed to be in a persistent vegetative state.
In 1988, her family, believing Cruzan, who was described as vibrant and full of life, would not want to live in this condition, all collectively agreed she would wish to have life extending apparatuses removed. However, the hospital refused. When the Cruzan’s filed their case, the State of Missouri Health Department refused to oblige, citing there was no evidence these were Cruzan’s actual wishes. The case would go all the way to the United States Supreme Court and would be the first right-to-die case for the SCOTUS.
Like Quinlan, the Cruzan case became a media frenzy. When the rulings finally came about in 1990, now seven years into the vegetative state, “pro-life” activists came in droves across the country to suddenly fight for Cruzan’s right-to-life.
It became a nation obsessed with a woman none of them knew, as they vilified the people this woman loved and trusted the most.
Four days after her feeding tube was removed, protesters attempted to enter the hospice, which resulted in not only arrests but the facility forcing itself on a lockdown. The hospice site became a media circus and several law enforcement officials were on site in an effort to block the protesters from entering.
On December 18, 1990, as the now 33-year-old Cruzan lie in the hospice, facing death, nineteen protesters are arrested. They gained entry into the facility and made it up to the 11th floor, with an effort to bring nourishment to Cruzan. Protesters found themselves holding signs and screaming chants into a bullhorn outside the facility, creating an uncomfortable and hostile environment.
From the above-linked article: ″She’s going to be dead soon if someone doesn’t intervene,″ Foreman said. ″Citizens have got to stop standing by silently and letting people die.″
The circus continued onward to December 20, when ten people holding a prayer vigil were ejected from the premises.
Cruzan eventually dies on December 26, 1990.
J. ‘Lester’ Cruzan, her beloved father, never recovered from both the tragic loss of his daughter and the public humiliation brought to his family. At the age of 62, Mr. Cruzan took his own life and suffered greatly from depression from the case.
You can read explicitly about this case from the Cruzan family lawyer, where some of this information was extracted.
Terri Schiavo might strike you in more recent memory. Born Theresa Marie Schindler on December 3, 1963, the 26 year old went on a crash diet, similar to Quinlan, and had reportedly been drinking only iced tea. On February 25, 1990, she collapsed in her Saint Petersburg home and was resuscitated but did not re-emerge into consciousness. She was married at the time, to Michael Schiavo, who would be her de facto guardian.
The Schindler family and Michael Schiavo actually initially had an amiable relationship and were both committed to Schiavo’s long-term care goals. In fact, so much so, that Michael Schiavo actually lived with the Schindler’s for a short time after the incident.
This all faded away in 1998 when Michael Schiavo filed a legal petition to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube, which would result in death. Unlike the Quinlan and Cruzan family, which were ultimately unified in their decision, this created a divided family.
And this was only more ammunition for the “pro-life” movement to jump in.
What was initially a familial dispute became a national sensation, involving public media and government intervention, much of which was based on the conservative ideals of “life”.
Michael Schiavo’s initial 1998 petition winds up in the courts in January 2000 and in February, Judge Greer rules that the tube can be removed. This is appealed in the courts and in 2001, Greer’s initial decision is upheld. On March 29, 2001, Greer orders the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube. The Schindler family attempts to involve the Florida Supreme Court, who refuses to intervene, and on April 24, 2001, Schiavo’s feeding tube is removed.
But it would later be re-inserted when the Pinellas-Pasco court demands so on April 26. This leads to additional public scrutiny. On November 22, 2002, Judge Greer once again orders the removal of her feeding tube, which was scheduled to take place on January 3, 2003.
By this point, the Schiavo case has gone from a personal and intimate family affair to an entire national conversation. In October 2003, the State of Florida introduces “Terri’s Law” which is signed into law by Governor Jeb Bush. This was an example of extreme government overreach, in which was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court of Florida due to unconstitutionality.
In 2005, Schiavo’s tube would be removed for the last time and on March 31, 42 year old Schiavo would die.
Much of the information was extracted from here.
Like Cruzan, Schiavo became a national media spectacle. Protesters from around the country traveled to her hospice, and once again, they inserted themselves into an intimate and tragic family affair. Pastor Chet Gallagher said Schiavo’s case was analogous to Jesus Christ’s execution. “Just as we remember the suffering Jesus endured, so we will not forget all Terri went through,’ said Gallagher, leader of the pro-life group Operation Save America. ‘There is great significance of having this amazing and powerful film on Easter weekend, outside this hospice, where history is being made.’”
On March 27, just a few days before Schiavo’s eventual death, five protesters were arrested. So much so, that Bobby Schindler, Schiavo’s brother, actually admonished the protesters and told them to cool it, saying they do not speak for the family.
Further, several protesters found their way to Michael Schiavo’s home, dropping roses and Easter lilies upon his lawn.
The case is undoubtedly tragic. These three cases, if anything, should encourage all of us to enact living wills. Not one of these three women aspired to be media cases or Supreme Court cases.
Regardless of your personal views on what you want to happen should you ever become permanently unconscious, it’s so important we respect medical autonomy. The “pro-life” movement focuses on a supposed role of morality but they cause more harm than anything. You never see these protesters when a Black civilian is taken in cold blood by a cop or a vigilante. You never see these protesters when children go hungry or when Black trans women meet fatal ends. You never see these protesters when women go missing or are killed, stalked or abused by their partners or friends. These protesters do not care about life. They care about enforcing violent doctrine upon others and they do not care who they harm in the process.