Rarely does the U.S. Congress intervene in personal controversies. Yet members held a very unusual weekend vote to save, at least temporarily, the life of Terri Schiavo, who otherwise would slowly starve to death at the Florida hospice in which she is confined.
The case is both tragic and complicated.
Terri collapsed for unknown reasons in 1990. Although cognitively disabled, she is not in a coma.
Her husband, Michael Schiavo, won a $1.3 million medical malpractice judgment, but he used none of the funds to provide her with rehabilitative care. Over the years he had two children with his live-in girlfriend.
Seven years ago he petitioned the court to remove Terri’s feeding tube. Twice it did so, only to be quickly overturned both times. Most recently, in October 2003, the trial court ruled for Michael but Florida’s legislature authorized Gov. Jeb Bush to order the tube reinserted. After the usual lengthy appeals, the Florida courts invalidated that law, finally leaving Michael free to order her feeding tube removed on March 18.
Now both the House and Senate have passed, and President George W. Bush has signed, legislation allowing the federal courts to review her case. The latter still might let her die, but the case would essentially begin anew, only at the national level.
Nothing about the case is simple.
*The right to die. Although euthanasia proponents and opponents have lined up on the predictable sides, virtually no one disputes Terri’s right to choose whether to live or die. The problem is, she left no “living will” or other instructions. So we really don’t know what she would decide.
Terri said she wanted “no tubes,” contends Michael, backed by his brother and sister-in-law. However, no other family member heard her talk in this way.
When seeking money for rehabilitative care, Michael did not mention her supposed desire to die. A former girlfriend said that he denied ever talking with Terri about such a situation.
Even if Terri did say “no tubes,” did she envision her current circumstance? How many people would want to die based on off-hand comment made years or decades before?
*Permanent vegetative state. Although Terri is disabled, doctors disagree about the degree of her impairment. Florida law defines a vegetative state as “the absence of voluntary action or cognitive behavior” and “an inability to communicate or interact purposefully with the environment.”
Terri seems to respond to people and events. Although some experts have dismissed the significance of her actions, others disagree. For instance, neuropsychologist Dr. Alexander Gimon argued that her responses “are completely inconsistent with a diagnosis of vegetative state.”
Contended neurologist Dr. William Hammesfahr, Terri “is alert and responsive to her environment. She responds to specific people best.” Her one-time court-appointed guardian ad litem, Jay Wolfson, concluded that Terri had a “distinct presence” and responded to family visitors.
Finally, Dr. William Hammesfahr, who has aided people with chronic brain injuries, said: “There are many approaches that would help Terri Schiavo. I know, because I had the opportunity to personally examine her, her medical records, and her X-rays.”
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