Friday, January 28, 2005

Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature may not know it, but they acted in the spirit of Sir Philip Sidney when they tried to save the life of Terri Schiavo.

When Sidney, a young warrior and poet in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, was mortally wounded in battle, legend has it he passed up a drink of water in deference to a common soldier who lay nearby in the throes of death. “Thy need is greater than mine,” Sidney told the dying man.

After his own lingering death, Sidney’s body was brought back to England, where he was given a state funeral and held up by his countrymen as a model of virtue to be emulated by all.

Today, Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, is trying to take an action that would reverse Sidney’s. Rather than provide water to a stranger about to die, he wants to deny water to his own wife who persists in living. Since 1998, contrary to the wishes of Terri’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, Mr. Schiavo has been seeking to remove the nutrition-and-hydration tube that sustains Terri, who became mentally incapacitated 15 years ago when her heart temporarily stopped beating.

On Sept. 17, 2003, a Florida court authorized Mr. Schiavo to remove his wife’s tube. On Oct. 15, 2003, the tube was removed and Terri began a slow death by dehydration. Six days later, Gov. Bush signed a law enacted by the Florida Legislature allowing him to issue a one-time stay of the court order that authorized removal of Terri’s nutrition-and-hydration tube. Mr. Bush ordered the tube restored, and Terri is alive today.

This week, however, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept Mr. Bush’s appeal of a Florida Supreme Court decision that overturned what became known as Terri’s Law. Other litigation in the case will continue, but so far the courts have consistently sided with starving and dehydrating Terri Schiavo.

The courts, however, are wrong. And the Florida Legislature should not stop fighting them.

The disputants in Terri Schiavo’s case disagree on her condition and prognosis. As noted in the petition Gov. Bush made to the Supreme Court, some say “Terri Schiavo is not actually in a persistent vegetative state because she is able to interact with her visitors and caregivers.”

But the key point is not disputed: Terri is unlikely to die soon unless deprived of food and water. Indeed, the purpose of depriving her of food and water is to kill her.

This is not about withholding desperate and disproportionate medical treatment from a patient destined to die of a terminal illness. Ironically, if Terri were sure to die of disease tomorrow, the purpose of denying her water today would disappear.

At its core, this case is about whether one person can make a judgment that another person’s “quality” of life justifies taking that other person’s life. What is at stake for society here was explained in a brief presented to the Supreme Court by the Catholic Medical Association (Terri Schiavo is a Catholic), which cited a letter published last March by Pope John Paul II saying it is wrong to withhold food and water even from someone believed to be in a persistent vegetative state.

“However, it is not enough to reaffirm the general principle according to which the value of a man’s life cannot be made subordinate to any judgment of its quality expressed by other men,” the pope said. “It is necessary to promote the taking of positive actions as a stand against pressures to withdraw hydration and nutrition as a way to put an end to the lives of these patients.”

The principle the pope defends is not new. It is the same principle President Bush defended when he addressed the March for Life via phone on Monday. “We know that in a culture that does not protect the most dependent,” Mr. Bush said, “the handicapped, the elderly, the unloved or simply inconvenient become increasingly vulnerable.”

And it is the same principle Sir Philip Sidney acted on when he sent his drink of water to a dying soldier. All human life is sacred because God made it so, and no man can change that.

Florida’s Legislature should not surrender this principle to the courts. Inspired by Terri Schiavo, it should enact a new law. This time, it should simply say: You may not kill a person through starvation or dehydration.

Terence P. Jeffrey is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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