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For nearly 15 years Terri Schiavo has been in a “persistent vegetative state.”  On February 25, 1990, Terri, then age 27, suffered a cardiac arrest.  She never regained consciousness.  Since then, Terri has lived in a nursing home with constant care.  She is fed and hydrated by tubes, and her diapers are changed regularly.

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Politics, the Courts, and the Right to Privacy

 

              For nearly 15 years Terri Schiavo has been in a "persistent vegetative state."  On February 25, 1990, Terri, then age 27, suffered a cardiac arrest.  She never regained consciousness.  Since then, Terri has lived in a nursing home with constant care.  She is fed and hydrated by tubes, and her diapers are changed regularly.

            For the first three years, Terri's husband, Michael, and parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, enjoyed an amicable relationship.  However, in 1993, they stopped talking with one another.  In 1998, eight years after Terri lost consciousness, Michael filed a petition for guardianship, which the Schindlers opposed.  This touched off a long legal battle over whether Terri should be kept alive.

            In the latest round in that battle, after four trips to the Florida Court of Appeals, a state trial court ruled that Terri's husband and guardian should be given the authority to  remove the tubes keeping Terri alive.  Six days later the Florida state legislature passed and Governor Jeb Bush signed a bill which allowed the Governor to intervene.

            The Governor exercised this new, extraordinary authority on that same day. Terri's guardian/husband also challenged the constitutionality of the new law.  The trial court ultimately determined that the law was unconstitutional, and the Governor appealed. The State Court of Appeals certified the case as "one of great public importance," thereby vesting jurisdiction in the state Supreme Court.

            In a lengthy decision, Bush v. Schiavo, issued September 23, 2004, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision.

            Since September, Terri's parents initiated a new round of challenges in the trial court itself.  Other persons with varied agendas have joined the fray.

            While good people on both sides see the issues differently, the battle continues in part because Terri never signed a Living Will or other advance medical directive and there is a dispute as to whether she ever said anything to indicate whether she would choose, if she could, to remove the tubes which keep her alive.

            To read the decision issued by the Florida Supreme Court (SC-04-925), go to http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2004/ops/sc04-925.pdf.

            In another "right-to-die" case that arose closer to home, the patient was in a "persistent vegetative state" for the better part of a decade.  Late one night in January 1983, Nancy Cruzan, age 25, was headed home on a back country road in rural Missouri when she lost control of her car. When Nancy was discovered, she was without detectable respiratory or cardiac function.  Eventually, Nancy Cruzan, like Terri Schiavo, was diagnosed by her physicians to be in a "persistent vegetative state" and was kept alive by feeding and hydration tubes.  After her parents sought court approval to remove those tubes, the state of Missouri intervened. (Attorney General John Ashcroft was then the Governor of Missouri.) The ensuing litigation was lengthy, eventually leading to a precedent-setting decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.  As the family struggled to cope with the loss of Nancy, various interest groups interjected themselves amid much media attention.  At one point, there was a stand-off between a large cadre of law enforcement officers and an equally large group of individuals who made several attempts to storm the hospital to "rescue" Nancy. Ultimately, two persons who had known Nancy but had moved away came forward to testy in court that they had overheard Nancy say that she would not want to be kept alive artificially.  With this, Nancy's parents were granted court approval to remove the tubes and Nancy was allowed to die.

            The emotional and physical toll the Cruzan family suffered in their decades-long battle through the court system is chronicled in the Long Goodbye: The Deaths of Nancy Cruzan by William H. Colby.  For more information, go to http://www.longgoodbye.org.

            Over the last thirty years, as the miracle of modern medical science gave us the ability to keep the human body alive long after human cognition had ceased to exist, there have been many other such cases.

            In the first of the sensational "right-to-die" cases,  the patient was in a "persistent vegetative state" for nearly 10 years.   In 1975, Karen Ann Quinlan, then age 21, collapsed after swallowing alcohol and tranquilizers at a party.  Her family waged a much-publicized legal battle for the right to remove her life support machinery. They succeeded when the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a precedent-setting opinion, but in a final twist of fate Karen kept breathing after the respirator was unplugged. She remained in a coma for almost 10 years in a nursing home until her death.

            For the family's view on Nancy's case see the "history" section at http://www.karenannquinlanhospice.org.

            Following the Karen Ann Quinlan case, many states, including Illinois, enacted legislation recognizing Living Wills and other "advanced directives" as valid means by which persons can express their personal wishes regarding the use of "extraordinary means" to maintain life and the intervention of "death-delaying" medical procedures.

            The lesson to take from the Schiavo, Cruzan and Quinlan cases is that it is not just "old people" who need to have "the talk" with their families.  Accidents happen!

            These cases also highlight the advisability of everyone over the age of majority (18) signing a Living Will or other advance medical directive appointing someone to speak for them when they are unable to do so.  Give yourself peace of mind and your loved ones a genuine gift of love this year for the holidays.  Talk with your attorney about a  Living Will, Power of Attorney for Health Care, or other Advance Medical Directive.  Then go home and have "the talk" with your loved ones.

            This article is scheduled to be published in the next issue of the Southern Business Journal.


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Phone: (618) 985-4529