- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

The moral and ethical debate about removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was temporarily suspended last week by the death of John Paul II, who fought for the sanctity of life throughout his papacy.

No one could miss the paradox of the pope struggling for life with the help of breathing and feeding tubes, as millions prayed for his recovery, while polls found a majority of Americans believed Terri Schiavo’s husband made the right decision to end her life.

Mrs. Schiavo died of starvation a week ago yesterday at a Florida hospice at the age of 41, after her husband and legal guardian decided, after she had been hospitalized 15 years, to deny her the nutrition and water that kept her alive. She was cremated Saturday, on the day the pope died amid reverence, especially in America, for teaching us anew that every life, no matter how wretched, has value and worth in the eyes of God.

Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube should have been kept in place and her care turned over to her parents, who were willing to accept full responsibility for her remaining life.

The debate over removing a feeding tube in such a case was a very personal one for me. My mom, after a stroke at the end of 2003 left her incapacitated — unable to swallow, stand or walk — was put on a feeding tube for most of last year. It was an easy decision for me. I wanted her to have every chance to recover.

But officials found Mrs. Schiavo’s situation difficult to address. For instance, when former Judge Robert Bork, a pro-life advocate and Reagan Supreme Court nominee, was asked how he would have voted on the Schiavo case, he said he did not know. On the one hand, he said he was concerned about the terrible precedent of ending someone’s life by pulling the plug. On the other hand, he expressed concern about the court making across-the-board rulings on dreadfully difficult, deeply personal cases that are the hardest a family can face.

Michael Schiavo’s decision triggered a tortuous battle with her parents who sought to keep her alive, as well as a debate among Americans bitterly divided over the troubling moral questions raised by ending someone’s life because of illness.

No one could remember a similar case where someone who could breathe on her own, and had no other life-threatening illnesses, was denied the sustenance of life.

Her husband’s decision came after years of hope she might one day recover the full consciousness she had lost due to severe brain damage from cardiac arrest in 1990. Bed-ridden, virtually immobile, she could not swallow, could not move about nor communicate her needs or desires.

In the legal and ethical debate, many said this tragic and rare episode proved life was no longer deeply valued in our society, that we are too ready to end the lives of the ill and weak.

I don’t agree. Go into any nursing home in this country and you will see extraordinary life-preserving treatment given people who seem to have no hope of improvement but whose lives have meaning and who are cared for by loved ones to the end.

Family members care for more than 80 percent of the elderly who need special assistance at home. This society does not neglect the incapacitated, the infirm and the sick. We spend billions to help them live longer, even when incapacitated, as my mom was.

The biotechnology of life-enhancing medications, treatments and care has been one of our most remarkable advances, prolonging the lives of the sufferers of many illnesses.

I knew little about feeding tubes until I learned this simple device could give my mother all the nutrition she needed. Medical advances here, too, have vastly improved. Thanks to a high-calorie diet, she began gaining weight, and slowly began speaking again in limited, halting sentences.

But efforts at physical rehabilitation failed, and it became clear she would get no better. Still, the caring nursing home staff got her up, washed and dressed her each morning and took her out in her wheelchair. She loved listening to Strauss, Gregorian chants and other classical works on her Sony Walkman. She talked to the attendants. We spent many pleasant afternoons in the nursing center’s garden or attending musical events.

My mom died last November, but there was never a thought of removing the feeding tube. We were happy it allowed us to have her with us as long as we did.

Others at the nursing center had feeding tubes, too — some who could not communicate at all. But their cases do not apply to all those in far more distressing, tortured circumstances.

In cases where someone in a vegetative state is kept alive by extraordinary, artificial means, that is a matter courts should leave to each family to decide.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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