Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Fruit or Vegetable?

Just a quick post about the Terri Schavio situation. For those who don't know, Terri is a woman in a vegetative state in Florida. She isn't completely vegetative, but largely so, but she functions on her own, except that she is unable to eat by normal means so she is on a feeding tube. Her husband wants, and has received court permission (awarded by a jury I believe), to remove the tube and let her starve to death. Her family says that she wouldn't want this, and the husband asserts that she does. The family is willing to take on all the medical bills, and to absolve the husband of any responsibilities. It should also be pointed out that, 10+ years after Terri went into this state, her husband has gotten engaged to another woman and has had children with her. Why he has stayed married to Terri is beyond me, though I'd expect the reasons to be largely related to money.

Anyways, I guess the simple question is this: if there is no reasonable basis for concluding whether someone in a vegetative state wants to pull the plug, who should we defer to? Her husband is her guardian, but he wants to pull the plug. Aren't those two positions inherently incompatible? Should a person in a vegetative state, who hasn't left a written directive (or clear, uncontested oral directive), become a ward of a citizen? Should the state instead step in and say "this vegetative person is now our responsibility"? Or maybe what should happen is that, absent a written directive, the state should give guardianship on a floating basis to a party who would fight for the continuation of the life. It just seems that, fundamentally, you can't be the guardian of someone if you are working for their demise.

Anyways, these are really well-conceived thoughts, as I've been really busy lately, and I just wanted to get something up. Hopefully they provide some fodder for conversation though. Mmmm... fodder...

14 comments:

dyk said...

The way you worded you description of Terri's condition is a little bit misleading where you say "She isn't completely vegetative, but largely so, but she functions on her own, except that she is unable to eat by normal means so she is on a feeding tube." I read 'functions' as having some degree of independence rather than her body simply 'functioning' unassisted. There would, of course, be a difference.

As for her husband and his conflicts of interests, I haven't heard much about that and am wondering why. The same for the financial matters. I'm surprised the media hasn't looked into it more. Perhaps they have and found nothing of significance.

Regarding the ruling, while I'd like to see people (and judges) leaning toward preserving life whenever possible, I can say that if I'm a vegetable and have communicated my wishes to a loved one concerning what to do with me should I end up in a vegetative state, especially a long-suffering one, I don't want the court intervening just because someone out there doesn't think it's my time. There's so much grey area in that kind of a situation, however, that most legislative or judicial bodies would loathe to try stumbling into or through such a fog.

Come on, now. Matt wants to see productive discussion...

Emily said...

Hmmm...this is interesting as one of the research papers I have to peer review for symposium is on euthenasia. I haven't read it yet though, but maybe I'll have something to say after I do. Hmm I should really start that...our conference meeting is in 2 hours....

Laura Guetter said...

Ahh...symposium

dyk said...

Ahh...euthanasia

Matthew B. Novak said...

Chris -

While you read functions that way, I'm pretty sure that the medical definition of vegitative implies no mental activity. Terri does have some. And different doctors believe different things about her ability to be rehabilitated. Apparently there are some significant monetary concerns in Terri's case - or at least, so terrisfight.org says. She won a large settlement way back when, and Michael stands to gain some money. I too am baffled why more hasn't been made of this fact by the media. I didn't even hear about it without going to a very opinionated website.

One more thing - if you do communicate your wishes, then they should be respected. But what if we have no reasonable basis for knowing what the person would want? Surely then a "gaurdian" who wants the person to die can't truly be considered a gaurdian. Right?

Oh yeah, and while sometimes legislative/judicial bodies loathe stumbling through fog other times they've got no problem with it. And many times, that is precisely their job - they aren't elected to make the laws no one will disagree with, they're elected to fix the problems that individuals don't always know the answers to.

dyk said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
dyk said...

I guess I didn't realize that such an action as allowing someone to starve to death would even be considered for an individual with even the smallest amount of mental activity. There's a great difference between 'vegetative' and what it appears Terri may be experiencing.

At what point can living will and these 'end-of-life' directives take effect? When the person is simply no longer able to communicate? That point could be far from vegetative.

I find the differences between active and passive euthanasia in this case particularly frustrating. If she has any mental activity, then starving to death, or dying of dehydration, will be a cruel week-long process. There certainly are more humane ways to end a life. The passivity of removing a feeding tube is a psychological convenience meaning her husband doesn't have to say that he purposely took the life of his wife (though if he is indeed a 'guardian' then the responsibility for negligence or 'passivity' (as with a parent's care of an infant) certainly rests on his shoulders.) Cruel as it may sound, if she really must die, admit what is taking place and take all necessary steps to ensure she doesn't suffer unnecessarily.

I don't know that removing Terri or someone in her state to the care of the government is the right action to take, but it certainly seems that some sort of advocacy would be appropriate. Teri is fortunate to have her parents taking this role, but I'm sure there are others who are not so lucky, and some sort of public defender ought to be available to prevent those uncared for from being killed for less than reasons of the gravest importance.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Oh yeah, I'm sure that's the solution. Further burden our already too-busy public defenders.

btnovak said...

Matt: just because it was "written" on a web site doesn't make it true

btnovak said...

Matt: just because it was "written" on a web site doesn't make it true

Anonymous said...

i really think u should rite somethin worth riting matt i mean sure its kinda interesting but could u use ess big words u no they confuse me!!!
molly

dyk said...

sheesh. I didn't mean to upset your legal-minded sensibilities. They don't have to be public defenders as we currently know them. I should have used the term 'advocate' or something similar. How would putting all incapacitated persons in the government's 'care' not burden the system in some way? It was YOUR idea.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Shoot, I was hoping you wouldn't notice that I'd suddenly switched positions.

Anonymous said...

btnovak said...
Matt: just because it was "written" on a web site doesn't make it true

But just because it was in the newspapers, on the tv or on the radio doesn't make it true either. That is why it is so important to search out the truth through all means.

Strictly by legal means and with all the judicial tyranny going on right now, the declaration of the sky being blue can be declared unconstitutional.
What ever happened to ethics in law? As a judge, wouldn't you want to cover all basis to make sure all human life is respected at all levels?
These are the questions I would love a media representative ask Micheal Schiavo:
Why do you not allow flowers or pictures of her family or music to play in her room?
Why have you forced her to lay in the darkness when you come to visit?
Why if she is in comatose state, do armed guards have to stand outside and INSIDE her room?

Why did you refuse her therapy that was determined to help her improve her muscles to eat and to communicate?

Why did you always take down her mileage in the morning before you left for work and checked it when you came home?

How, when you now love another women enough to have two kids with, can you say you love Terri and want the best with her when you have moved on with your life...what about until death do you part?

As someone who would respect your wife's wishes and love, why wouldn't encourage the judge to allow her to recieve the Eucharist which was very much an important part of her life?

Why is your legal representative one of the for front supporters of right-to-die legislation?

Do you know that many holocaust victims suffered the same death Terri will finish?

Do you know the suffering that happens by dehydration?