The right to kill Terri Schiavo

Posted: Mar 22, 2005 12:00 AM
Terri Schiavo must die. A federal judge refused to order the tube bringing her food and water reinserted. As you read this, Terri Schiavo is dying of thirst, deliberately induced.

Michael Schiavo, her legal husband, who lives with another woman (the mother of his two children), still claims a husband's right to direct Terri's medical care. And so she must die. He says she would have wanted it that way.

Sixty percent of Americans in the latest Gallup poll apparently agree with Michael Schiavo.

The hope of Terri's parents -- that widespread media coverage including pictures of their smiling, grimacing, moaning, gazing daughter, looking distinctly un-vegetablelike, will save her -- has apparently backfired. We look on their beloved daughter Terri and are mostly appalled and repulsed. Who would want to live like that? Terri herself, in watching the similar decline of beloved relatives, allegedly expressed horror at the prospect, saying (according to court depositions) she wouldn't want to live like that. Well, who would?

So the desperate pleadings of a mother for the life of her child fall on deaf ears. So sorry, Mom, but Terri must die the long, slow, agonizing death of dehydration. It is in her interests, see? Her husband (who has lived for 10 years with another woman) says so. And frankly, we gotta agree with him.

George Felos, an attorney for Michael Schiavo, argued in federal court: "Yes, life is sacred. So is liberty, particularly in this country."

The liberty of a patient to refuse medical treatment, when the treatment is overly intrusive or futile, is well-established. Are we honoring Terri's right to refuse medical care (expressed now by proxy through the man who claims the rights of a husband while he lives with and has children by another woman)? Or are we asserting a right to kill her? Is food and water medical care?

"Persistent vegetative state" was a diagnosis invented in order to cope with patients who are not brain-dead, but severely mentally disabled. The claim is that such people have no cognition, no self-awareness at all, but of course we cannot know for sure what such patients experience. The fact that a number of patients have emerged from persistent vegetative states after many years ought to be a flashing warning sign: There's still someone there, even if that person is unable to communicate. Does that person have a right to life? Is her life sacred too? Or if we find her condition sufficiently repulsive, do we have the right to kill her?

Nor is there agreement that Terri is in a vegetative state right now. Her family disputes it, saying she sometimes responds to their loving gestures and words. Their perceptions are dismissed as wishful thinking. But a neurologist who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1999 (and who examined Terri Schiavo several years ago) told BP News that Terri is not in a vegetative state. She sometimes responds. Terri (he says) has been able to swallow pudding in the past, and can swallow her own saliva right now. With therapy, she might not even need the feeding tube. "They are truly withholding food from a person who is awake, alert, and can eat and swallow."

Does that matter? If Terri were capable of drinking water right now, would we be justified in withholding it from her? Are we celebrating her autonomy or her death?

When does the "right to die" become the right to kill?