- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

The right-to-die — or right-to-life — case of Terri Schiavo has ignited an essential national debate on who has the authority to decide on the “quality of life” and whether life continues. Although brain-injured, Mrs. Schiavo is neither brain-dead nor terminal. And not all neurologists agree she’s in “a persistent vegetative state.” But her husband, Michael Schiavo, ordered her feeding tube removed Oct. 15.

The Florida legislature has intervened in the case, giving Gov. Jeb Bush the power to overrule her husband and reinsert the feeding tube. Mr. Schiavo has gone to court to have the feeding tube removed again. She would then starve to death. Initially, the resultant furor across the nation at this form of “death with dignity”— in the phrase of right-to-die proponents — pressured the legislature to act.

Mr. Bush was already in favor of Mrs. Schiavo’s right to stay alive, emphasizing that “it is only the lack of food and water that will cause her death,” and that she “is not comatose.”

However, an array of lawyers, doctors, bioethicists and — to my dismay — the American Civil Liberties Union support her husband’s right to end her life.

Harvard University’s eminent professor of constitutional law, Laurence Tribe, told the New York Times that he disagrees with the interference of Florida’s legislature and governor. By not supportingMr.Schiavo’s testimony stating that he knows what Mrs. Schiavo would have wanted, they “fundamentally violate her right to bodily integrity,” according to Mr. Tribe, as well as the separation of powers in our government that gives the judiciary the final say over the legislature. Other lawyers disagree.

I do not have a law degree, but I would have thought that the ultimate violation of anyone’s bodily integrity is to starve a person to death.

The witnesses to Mrs. Schiavo’s alleged statement, when she could speak, that she did not want to stay alive “by artificial means” are her husband, his brotherandhis brother’s wife. But Mrs. Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, who have fought all of these years for her life, vigorously deny ever hearing their daughter say anything of the sort. Whatever Mrs. Schiavo may or may not have said, did she want to starve to death when she spoke of “artificial means”?

Mr. Schiavo is so determined to remove his wife’s feeding tube that, after the order was given to reinsert it, one of his lawyers faxed a letter to doctors in Pinellas County, where the procedure was to be done, threatening to sue any doctor who reconnectedthe feeding tube because Mrs. Schiavo’s husband was going to court to contest what the legislature and the governor had done.

Accordingto Mrs. Schiavo’s parents; their lawyer, Patricia Anderson; and several reporters there is another dimension to Mr. Schiavo’s concentration on ending his wife’s life. In the Oct. 20 Weekly Standard Online, Wesley Smith — who has done more extensive research on these right-to-die cases than anyone I know — reported:

“Michael … is engaged to be married and has a baby with his fiancee (with whom he is living), with another one on the way.” Both Mr. Smith and Mrs. Schiavo’s parents also charge that, after the jury awarded $1.1 million in damages in a medical malpractice suit connected with Mrs. Schiavo’s condition,”approximately $750,000 was set aside to pay for her care and rehabilitation. But … Michael refused to provide Terri with any rehab.” Michael Schiavo vigorously denies this. My information is that he provided some rehab care until it was too expensive.

In reporting on this fierce contest for Mrs. Schiavo’s life, the media has contended that most of the support for reinserting the feeding tube has come from “the religious right” and pro-lifers (the two are not always synonymous). Overlooked is the deep interest in Mrs. Schiavo’s case from disability-rights organizations. Fourteen of those national groups have filed a friend-of-the court brief to keep Mrs. Schiavo alive.

In an Oct. 24 letter to the New York Times, Access Living’s Max Lapertosa objected to the paper’s editorial that “true respect for life includes recognizing … when it ceases to be meaningful.” The Times supports the husband, writing that “the courts should reaffirm Mrs. Schiavo’s right to die in peace.” Starvation is not at all peaceful, since she is responsive.

Mr. Lapertosa reminded the New York Times, and the rest of us, that “many would lump in this category (of meaningless life) people with severe autism, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy, who, like Mrs. Schiavo, are nonverbal.”

Mrs. Schiavo is indeed disabled, but she is not a vegetable. Says Jacksonville, Fla., board-certified neurologist Dr. Jacob Green: “There was no doubt this woman had minimal but definite cognizant function. She is not in a vegetative state.” To remove her feeding tube, Green adds, “I’ll call it murder. They’re … taking away any chance.”

I will address the constitutional separation of powers issue in a future column. But had I been in the Florida legislature, I would not have voted to starve her to death.

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