- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005


The arguments surrounding Terri Schiavo will live on in statehouse debate and new laws if an emerging coalition of disability rights activists and right-to-lifers succeed in turning the national agony over her case into a re-examination of when and how our lives come to an end.

So far, only a few legislators in a handful of states have sought significant changes to their laws that define the fundamental elements at stake — how a person can set limits on his or her medical care, who gets to decide what a person’s wishes were and what evidence is needed to prove it.

None has become law, and the chances for most, if not all, are slim this year, with some legislatures finished and many far along in their work for this session. But both Republicans and Democrats say the arguments aren’t going away.

The debate is an effort to strike a new balance between one stance that argues that medical care and morality mean life must be pursued in nearly all cases and another stance, crafted over decades of changing views about death, that some might choose to end drastically damaged lives that depend on artificial means.

“I really wanted to make sure we gave a default for life and not for death,” said Kansas state Rep. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican who helped revive a measure that would give courts a greater chance to review decisions to end life-sustaining care, thus reducing the role of guardians or doctors. “Our most vulnerable citizens are in fact in the most danger of losing their life without any recourse.”

She was joined in her effort by disability activists, many aligned with liberal causes, and Democrats in the state House. The measure stalled in the Kansas Senate, however, as the session ended for the year last Friday.

“We don’t want to get into the politics of the right or the left or whomever,” said Michael Donnelly at the Disability Rights Center of Kansas. “This isn’t about politics; this is about how we value or don’t value the lives people with disabilities have.”

His group had been working for years to revisit the issue and came together with several conservative legislators to move the bill forward.

Elsewhere, the National Right to Life Committee has produced model legislation and is working with legislators in several states.

Legislation has also been introduced in Alabama, Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota and South Dakota. The Louisiana bill is called the “Human Dignity Act”; Alabama’s is the “Starvation and Dehydration Prevention Act.”

Many measures predate recent weeks of attention to Mrs. Schiavo, though some drew their inspiration directly from the agonized public debate over the 41-year-old woman’s death — such as one in Missouri introduced last Thursday, the day Mrs. Schiavo died.

“I was gripped by what I was watching and couldn’t believe the state of Florida would let this woman die in this manner,” said Republican state Rep. Cynthia Davis. Her bill would bar anyone from directing that artificially supplied food and water be withheld or withdrawn without a specific written directive from the patient.

There’s also legislation about living wills and other end-of-life issues that wouldn’t further the aims of this emerging group — such as a Nevada measure that would let a guardian end life-sustaining measures even if it’s against a patient’s known wishes, as long as it’s in the patient’s best interests.

The views of medical care and ending life have shifted in the past 30 years as the country grappled with brain-damaged or comatose patients whose families said they shouldn’t be forced to live a life they wouldn’t want, starting with the Karen Ann Quinlan case in 1975, then to Nancy Cruzan in 1990 and now to Mrs. Schiavo.

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