Life and death
in the wrong hands
Commentary by Adam Tanous
What does it mean to be alive?
The answer to that question may have
medical, spiritual or philosophical definitions, any of which might be
sufficient for a given context. But a cohesive and comprehensive understanding
of that question is illusive and at the root of some of the more divisive
debates of civil society. For one, it bears import on the right-to-die issue.
If pressed, I would say life comes down to
a complex interweaving of emotional connection to others, intellectual thought
processes and a sensual perception of the outside world. They are, at times,
interdependent qualities, which doesn’t help when it comes to deciding what to
do about cases like that of Terri Schiavo.
Doctors have determined that in 1990
Schiavo experienced a potassium deficiency, which caused her heart to stop
temporarily. Schiavo suffered brain damage and went into what doctors call a
"persistent vegetative state." She was 26 years old at the time and had no
living will. Though able to breathe on her own, Schiavo has no cognitive
function. She cannot chew nor swallow food. Schiavo has only involuntary
So for 13 years she has been in a
vegetative state with a feeding tube inserted in her abdomen to keep her alive,
at least by some definitions.
Schiavo’s husband, Michael, had sought
treatment—some relatively experimental—for his wife for years, but in 1998 went
to the courts to seek the removal of her feeding tube. He testified that his
wife told him she would never want to be kept alive artificially. It’s not clear
when she told him this, though presumably it was before the original cardiac
In recent court documents, Mr. Schiavo
stated of his earlier efforts to sustain his wife’s life, "I never wanted Terri
to die. I was hiding behind my hope and selfishly ignoring Terri’s wishes."
What makes this case especially difficult
is the reported acrimony between Michael Schiavo and Terri’s parents, Bob and
Mary Schindler. The Schindlers have been fighting Mr. Schiavo’s efforts in
court, despite the fact that they signed over full legal guardianship to him
after Terri first went into a vegetative state in 1990. As a matter of law,
legal guardianship during illnesses generally falls to the husband or wife,
rather than to parents. And so over the course of six years of hearings and
appeals Mr. Schiavo has won at just about every turn. One of the reasons he has
won so consistently is the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that residents
have the "constitutional right to choose or refuse medical treatment."
Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed
Wednesday, Oct. 15.
Enter the Florida Legislature. Prompted by
a letter writing campaign organized by militant anti-abortion activist Randall
Terry (of Operation Rescue fame), the Legislature carefully drafted a bill to
apply specifically to the Schiavo case and which gave the governor the power of
a one-time stay to override the court rulings and have the tube reinserted. The
tube was put back into Schiavo Tuesday, Oct. 21.
This action by Gov. Jeb Bush and the
Florida Legislature is wrong on several fronts. For one, it’s a case of
politicians trampling over the privacy rights of individuals solely to make a
show of their principles. How can a passel of politicians possibly insert
themselves into this ethical and very personal decision? If in their own lives
they choose to remain in a vegetative state indefinitely, should it come down to
that, it is certainly their right. But to force someone else to take that path
is ethically untenable. The action defies Terri Schiavo’s wishes—according to
her husband’s testimony—and the wishes of her legal guardian.
Where life and death intersect, and to
what extent dignity enters into our last wishes, is and always has been a very
personal determination. To put that kind of decision in the hands of someone
else is profoundly misguided.
What’s more, the actions of the governor
and lawmakers seems to be on shaky legal ground. How can a law crafted for one
case and which provides a one-time power for the governor possibly conform to
the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution?
Yet another legal problem with this move
is it violates the constitutional separation of powers. In broad terms,
legislatures are charged with enacting general laws. It is up to the courts to
decide individual cases with their particular facts. For the Florida Legislature
to try to undo a decided case with a new law is a gross violation of their
power. Imagine if every time a legislature, regardless of political leaning,
decided it didn’t like a particular court ruling and so enacted laws to get
around the ruling. It would not only create legal chaos but it would also be an
abuse of power.
Many of the Florida lawmakers reportedly
made note of their religious beliefs before voting for the law. That’s all well
and good for them but totally irrelevant here. Whatever those beliefs may be,
I’m sure they will serve them well should they ever have to face such an awful
decision. What is relevant is not their religious beliefs, but those of Terri
Schiavo and her husband, and whatever intimate conversations the couple may have
had regarding right-to-die issues.
Issues of life and death, whether we’re
talking about abortion or the choices we sometimes have to make at the end of
life, are questions for the soul, each and every soul. They cannot be resolved
by consensus or democratic majorities. Those are the bluntest of instruments in
the most delicate of situations. Only in the heart and mind of an individual can
such questions be answered. And even at that, it’s a difficult, sometimes
convoluted, path to the answer inside. No governor or legislature has the
ability to see that deeply into anybody.