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Terri Schiavo: Can she die in peace?

by Faye Girsh
Editor, World Federation Newsletter

The Terri Schiavo case has become a rallying cry to the Right to Life movement and disability groups in the United States. Pressure from these constituencies compelled Congress on March 19 to pass a bill solely for the purpose of requiring a new trial in the federal courts. President Bush returned to sign it in the middle of the night. The courts, including the Supreme Court, refused to rehear the case. Her feeding tube was disconnected March 18; as of this writing she has been without food and water for 11 days, receiving hospice care. Even people who favored allowing her to die are appalled at the way she is dying, although palliative care specialists argue that she does not feel discomfort, that this is not an uncommon way to die, and is peaceful.

Altogether twenty-four courts have consistently agreed on the two critical factors in this case:

  1. Terri Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. Tests show that spinal fluid is in the part of her brain where her cortex used to be.
  2. There is clear and convincing evidence that her wishes were to not continue with artificial means of life support – in this case artificial food and hydration – as stated by her husband who has the legal authority and other witnesses.

The case has been through the entire appellate process; three times the Florida Circuit Court has conducted thorough, careful, impartial trials, considered the evidence, and concluded that Mrs. Schiavo would not have wanted a gastric feeding tube to be maintained under these circumstances. Although she did not have an advance directive, the law designates the spouse to express the substituted judgment for the patient. Her parents, practicing Catholics, do not agree with the decision and have provided their own experts, largely discredited, to argue that she is in a state of minimal consciousness. They have argued that she is responsive and alert and have made hours of video tapes from which a few sections are culled to substantiate their arguments. Both sides have agreed to authorize an autopsy to show conclusively the condition of her brain.

The majority of Americans, according to all polls, favors the ruling of the courts, and is opposed to the intervention of the legislative and executive branches. Neither President Bush nor his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, have intervened in the case directly. Michael Schiavo, her husband, and George Greer, the federal judge who consistently ruled not to reinstate the feeding tube, have received serious death threats.

There may be adverse legislative outcomes. One suggestion has been not to remove artificial food and hydration from anyone who has not previously expressed their wishes in an advance directive. However, on the positive side, there is a surge of interest in advance directives – as there was after the Nancy Cruzan case in 1990. Mercifully Terri Schiavo will die soon before pressures compel another intervention to save what is left of her life.