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Ethics and the Right to Die

Terri Schiavo's body has been cremated, and this week her parents held a funeral mass for the brain-damaged woman who died March 31, almost two weeks after her feeding tube was removed. The decision to remove Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube was reported worldwide and renewed questions about the right to die. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical issues involved.

Bioethicists differ in their opinions about when a feeding tube can be removed or when medical treatment can be refused. Many religious leaders condemned the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.

At the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC, Dr. John Collins Harvey says withdrawing care is a difficult ethical decision but can be justified under certain conditions. "Treatment and care of a very extraordinary nature like life support treatment is futile to apply to a patient who is dying of his or her disease. The individual in the permanent vegetative state has a fatal illness that can never be cured, never be treated, and any type of high-tech care we give them is simply prolonging their death."

Pope John Paul II appeared to rule out some treatment options when he decided not to return to the hospital for further medical care.

Dr. Harvey says some of the considerations about ending or withholding treatment involve weighing the benefits of treatment against the burdens it may cause. When there is no hope of recovery, continued treatment might prolong the suffering of the patient, the family, and even society. "If the benefits of a treatment are not equal to the burdens that the patient has to undergo in getting that treatment, we then stop the treatment."

There are also legal considerations. Professor Bob Tuttle specializes in ethics at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, DC. "The [U.S.] Supreme Court has said that people have the right to make decisions about their medical treatment, including decisions about whether they would like life-sustaining treatment or not."

Professor Tuttle says the most difficult cases to decide are those like Terri Schiavo's where someone has to make a decision for the patient and where family members disagree about the outcome. And there is another consideration. "The other principle is also from a United States Supreme Court case about five years ago where the court said people do not have the right to the assistance of medical help in committing suicide."

But voters in the western state of Oregon passed a "Death with Dignity Act" which lets doctors prescribe life-ending drugs for terminal patients who want to end their lives. The Bush administration is challenging that act. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the appeal later this year.