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Terri Shiavo’s plight–the Court’s shame

Posted by MDViews on January 25, 2005

Terri Shiavo, the woman in Florida who is in a “persistent vegetative state” (or just neurologically impaired depending on who you believe) from an event in which her heart stopped beating, lost a battle to the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) today when they allowed to stand a decision by the Florida supreme court overturning “Terri’s law”.

Some history. Terri is married to Michael, a man who now lives with another woman and has two children with her. Michael and Terri’s parents have been battling for over a decade over Terri and her feeding tube. Michael wants it removed so she will dehydrate and starve to death. Her parents want to keep it in so she can continue to receive food and water.

They dispute how aware she is. Michael says she’s a vegetable with no value, at least not enough to warrant food and water. Her parents say she responds and is quite aware of people and her surroundings.

When Michael won a court battle in 2003 allowing removal of the feeding tube, Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature passed “Terri’s law” which mandated the tube be replaced and her food and water continued. Later, the Florida Supreme court overturned the law saying the legislature overstepped its bounds. The case was appealed, and today the SCOTUS sided with the Florida Supreme Court by refusing to hear the case and allowing the ruling to stand.

Hmm, I wonder. Does Michael have a motive that may not be altruistic?

It’s hard to place this into a perspective that will impact your ordinary wishy-washy, I’d-rather-not-think-about-things-like-this citizen. After all, who can oppose helping some poor vegetable a trip to a better place?

Well, people need to know that these cases are seldom so clear cut. The science of neurology is part science and much art. Thus the differing opinions on Terri Shiavo’s state of health.

I once had a patient who was in a motor vehicle accident and sustained a severe head injury. She was in a coma on a ventilator for one month when she “woke up”, as she put it. When I saw her, it was several years after that episode. She could walk and think and lived in her own apartment. She was disabled from her injury, but she certainly appreciated being alive. If her state had allowed euthanasia, she could have legally been removed from life support and killed. She was a “vegetable” by anyone’s definition, but now is a functioning human being.

And so it goes. Once the state allows life to be ended by withdrawing food and water, it is participating in euthanasia. The distance between withdrawing life-saving treatment (antibiotics, blood products, medicines) and withdrawing the basic substance of life (food and water) is short. How short, then, to hemlock and mercy killing? Very, very short, indeed.

And is recoverability or mental functioning a requirement for human life? What if Terri is in a vegetative state? Does that disqualify her from existence? Who decides what life is worth living, what life has value?

History is replete with those who thought they could decide. Hitler was one. Six million Jews lived (or died) his value system.

My prayer is that President Bush and the conservatives in Congress will bring some jurists to the court who will support life. It can’t come to soon.

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