Just Slow Down

“The case of Terri Schiavo raises complex issues. Yet in instances like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life. Those who live at the mercy of others deserve our special care and concern. It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities.” — White House Press Release, March 17, 2005.Terri Schiavo and the question as to whether her feeding tube ought to be disconnected touches on so many issues of morality, law, and family, that is often difficult to sort out the conflicting issues so that they may be carefully and precisely weighed. The White House statement above is just a restatement of the common sense notion that on matters of life and death one ought to act with reasonable caution. As this is being written, Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube has been removed and unless it is restored, she will likely die of starvation and dehydration in two weeks. At the same time, both houses of Congress are scrambling to open up the possibility of a review by the Federal courts of the decision by state Judge George Greer to allow the removal of the feeding tube.

About 15 years ago, Terri Schiavo suffered a stroke that left her severely disabled. The degree of her mental impairment is at the center of this case. Presently, Ms. Schiavo’s parents and siblings wish to care for her and maintain her life, while her husband, de jure if not de facto, insists the his wife would have wanted the feed tube removed. Ms. Schiavo has no living will stating her preferences for treatment. By both common law and state law, the discretion in this case is given to the husband.

Part of the popular confusion of the case derives from the fact that many of us have or will be faced with ostensibly similar situations with respect to ailing relatives. In the last week of her life, as my aunt was dying of pancreatic cancer, she asked not to be fed. As her body was shutting down, the addition of more food and water was her causing extreme discomfort. The lack of food was less uncomfortable than being fed. She insisted that she not be fed in the final days of her life. Her express wishes were honored.

This and similar situations should not be confused with Ms. Schiavo’s circumstances. Until the feeding tube was removed and despite the fact that her husband placed her in a hospice facility, Ms. Schiavo was not a terminally ill patient. She is being killed by starvation because the state court of Florida has determined that in her “persistent vegetative state” it is permissible for her husband to decide that her life is not worth living.

Despite the years of litigation, there are important issues that ought to be resolved before the state permits Ms. Schiavo’s life to be taken. Consider the following two important questions:

  • Is Ms. Schiavo in truly in a persistent vegetate state? There are apparently important medical tests, including MRI’s and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) that have not been performed that can more clearly assess the actual extent of Ms. Schiavo’s brain damage. Surely, if we can delay the execution of convicted criminals pending the results of DNA tests, we can wait for more dispositive tests in the case of Ms. Schiavo. The state judge in the case refused to allow the new tests.
  • Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband, long ago moved in with another woman and has fathered two children by her. It is possible to understand how a person might decide to move on with his life. However, after having done so, should this person’s discretion now take precedence over parents in determining what is to happen to Terri Schiavo? In addition, given the fact that physical and other therapy that might have improved Ms. Schiavo’s condition were not permitted by her husband, there seems to be evidence that he may not have his wife’s best interests at heart.

There is no pressing need to kill Ms. Schiavo now. If she is really mentally dead and incapable of feeling pain, then a little more time connected to a feeding tube should not be an issue. A headline at MSNBC opines that “The time has come to let Terri Schiavo die.” This mode of thought perfectly misunderstands the situation. Until it can be unequivocally stated that Ms. Schiavo has no brain function and it will not return, the removal of her feeding tube is not letting her die. It is killing her, just as surely as if the feeding tube were pulled from any number of other disabled people, like the late Christopher Reeves.

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