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What was the Shiavo circus all about? Should we worry?

by Derek Humphry

At the height of the Terri Schiavo case I was asked to speak in New York city. I had intended to speak about voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, but the audience was only interested in the implications of the Schiavo case. What did it mean for them now? How would it affect their end of life? This was what I improvised for the inflamed subject of that day:

The print media, the television channels, the air waves currently are choked with loose language ranging from ‘brutal murder’ to ‘death with dignity’ and it is hard to know what to make of what is going on. The Florida case is ­worrying and unsettling to the average person.

Perhaps this definition will help adjust our attitudes: “The right to choose to die in a manner and at a time of one’s own choosing is the ultimate civil liberty. Because of the astonishing advances in medical technology it behooves all thinking individuals to decide in advance of death to document their wishes. Also to make known their desire for – or rejection of – a rational suicide in order to escape pointless, protracted suffering.”

Were it in my power, I would mandate that all persons attaining the age of eighteen be obliged to sign an advance care declaration. To be fair, it could be the reverse of what I would sign, requesting all known life-support equipment.

Advance Directives are popularly known as ‘Living Wills’ and they’ve been around in America since 1976 when California introduced the first one. New York has a ‘health care proxy’ and that is most useful. In spite of the Schiavo rumpus, Florida has some of the best end-of-life laws.

We must take the uncertainty out of this issue once and for all so that the health care professionals – particularly hospice – know exactly where they stand. You also want to know where you stand.

People who want endless treatment and equipment to keep them alive will soon run society into trouble. Do we want banks of people in clinics on respirators and feeding tubes, in effect keeping dead people barely alive? Ventilating corpses?

Hospitals will be overwhelmed and the costs of health care – already steep – will bankrupt the nation. Physicians and nurses will revolt at having to provide futile care when others not terminal might be saved. Freedom of choice has its breaking point, physically, emotionally, and financially.

Of the two and a half­million Americans who die every year in the natural cycle of life and death, thousands finally pass on through the ‘pulling of a plug’ because their inevitable end has come. Often the patient knows nothing about this. It is the family – hopefully backed by documents – who liaise with the doctors to achieve a commonsense, negotiated death.

The Terri Schiavo case may seem important because of the huge attention it has received in the media, the courts, and the US Congress. But it is really an aberration. The media turned a family quarrel into a major conflict because such fights are good for ratings and sales. Anti-choice politicians and religious zealots saw a swift opportunity to boost their selfish causes.

But not only have the states of America already decided on this, but so has the US Supreme Court. There is a right to die by the disconnection of life support, the court ruled in the Cruzan case, provided there is clear and convincing evidence of such a wish. Sadly (but it is hard to criticize her), Terri Schiavo, when struck down at age 26, did not have an advance directive. She could not easily be released from her persistent vegetative state.

Fortunately, the courts in America stood firm behind the spouse’s right to decide for his wife despite a lengthy volley of ‘judge bashing’. In the end, the constitution worked, the courts stood firm, and Terry Schiavo was allowed her peaceful exit.

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