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Terri Schaivo: Dying In America

The case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman who has been kept alive for the last 15 years, has sparked a debate about dying in America. Is society obligated to preserve life at any cost? Or is there a point when nature should be allowed to take its course?

In 1990 Terri Schiavo was 26-years-old when her heart briefly stopped. The incident left her with severe and lasting brain damage. For the last 15 years she has been living in a hospital room in Florida, relying on a feeding tube to survive.

Her husband and guardian, Michael Schiavo, has said that Terri would not have wanted to be kept alive in a vegetative state and he has asked that the feeding tube be removed.

Her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, question Michael Schiavo's motivation in this case, saying Terri's death would allow him to marry another women with whom he has two children. Mary asserts, "She is not a plastic plant."

The Schindlers dispute the doctor's diagnosis that Terri Schaivo is in a persistent vegetative state; that she has lost her upper brain activities, her awareness, her ability to think and feel. They see her awake and feel her squeeze their hands and believe it is a sign that she is aware. But is she?

Janice Marie Vinicky, with the Center for Ethics at the Washington Hospital Center, says it is easy to mistake these rudimentary functions for signs of recognition. "Persons in persistent or permanent vegetative states sometimes have sleep-wake cycles. They wake up. They open their eyes. They may even look like they're looking at you. They may wake up incidentally when you walk into the room or appear to wake up when you walk into the room. They have some reflexive activities of their arms and legs. None of which are intentional and none of which are consistent."

The case went to court in Florida in 2003. The judge sided with Michael Schiavo and ordered the removal of the feeding tube. The order has been delayed because of legal challenges. Florida Governor Jeb Bush helped pass a state law to restore Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube. That law was rejected by the state supreme court. Pro-life organizations, like the National Right to Life Committee, have organized rallies and lobbied for national legislation to overrule the Florida court decision.

Dorothy Timbs is with the National Right To Life Committee. "This woman, Terri Shindler-Schiavo, is not terminally ill. She suffers from a disability. And really if you look at the case more carefully this case is about the rights of people with disabilities."

These advocates for Terri Schiavo say federal intervention is needed particularly in cases where there is any doubt about the diagnosis or where there is disagreement among family members.

But Janice Marie Vinicky says these groups are not so much interested in the process as in a final outcome that conforms with their religious-political views, no matter the quality of that life, no matter the cost. "I think we will cost society a whole lot of money, a lot more money and I'm not sure what the ultimate good is. What are we trying to achieve? What is the ultimate good here? Is it just the preservation of life and I don't mean to demean life, but is it any kind of life at any cost? We'll do anything to save anybody for as long as we can? "

On March 18th Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was disconnected. Since then the U.S. Congress passed legislation giving a federal court jurisdiction over the case. President Bush signed the bill making it law. But the federal courts at every level including the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overrule the Florida court decision. While supporters continue to pray for Terri Schiavo, doctors say she has only a few days left to live.