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Euthanasia threatens dignity of life

Charles Rice | Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Since 1990, when she suffered a cardiac arrest, Theresa Marie (Terri) Schiavo has been in what a Florida court found to be a “persistent vegetative state.” Other experts claim she is not PVS and can be rehabilitated. Terri’s husband, Michael, obtained a court order to remove her feeding tube on the ground that Terri, before 1990, had orally said to Michael, his brother and his brother’s wife that she would not want “tubes” to keep her alive. Terri’s parents deny that Terri would want to be starved to death. Six days after the tube was withdrawn, the Florida legislature authorized Governor Jeb Bush to prevent the withholding of nutrition and hydration “from such a patient.” The Governor did so. Terri is receiving nutrition and hydration while the courts consider the case.The court granted Michael’s request to end Terri’s life despite a clear conflict of interest. In 1993 Michael recovered $1.1 million from doctors whose misdiagnosis resulted in Terri’s PVS. An undisclosed part of that award has been used for Michael’s legal fees in seeking to end Terri’s life. “This fund remains sufficient to care for Theresa for many years,” said the Florida Court of Appeal in 2001. “If she were to die today, her husband would inherit the money. … If Michael … divorced Theresa … the fund remaining at the end of Theresa’s life would … go to her parents.” Financially, Michael has much to gain from Terri’s death. Also, Michael has been living for the past seven years with Jodi Centonze; they have one child and she is pregnant with another. Michael has stated that he plans to marry Jodi after Terri’s death.The law allows a competent adult to starve himself to death, which is a form of suicide. Because Terri is incompetent, the decision was made for her by others that she would want to be starved and dehydrated to death. In this light the event has the character not of suicide but of homicide. Which leads to a point that tends to be overlooked here.The only reason anyone has heard about this case is because Michael and Terri’s parents disagree. He wants to kill her. They want to keep her alive. What Michael proposes happens every day without publicity in cases where the relatives or other care-givers are in agreement that it is time for the patient to die.In 1990, the Supreme Court of the United States allowed the starvation of Nancy Cruzan at the request of her family on “clear and convincing evidence” that Nancy would want that. In the 1997 case of Vacco v. Quill, the Court upheld New York’s prohibition of assisted suicide but gave the green light to “palliative care” including sedation which results in the unintended death of the patient. Except in a most unusual case, how can you tell that the doctor’s intent in sedating the patient was to kill rather than to relieve pain? Euthanasia by withdrawal of feeding or by sedation, where the family or other care-givers are in agreement, is moving beyond the practical reach of the law. As the Florida Supreme Court said in the 1990 Browning case, the family or guardian can starve a patient to death “without prior judicial approval” if the patient, when competent, made “oral declarations” showing a desire to forego feeding.Under Catholic teaching a feeding tube may be withdrawn if it is intolerably painful, if it no longer sustains bodily life because the patient can no longer absorb the nutrients, or if the patient is in the closing hours or minutes of the dying process when nature can be allowed to take its course and the withdrawal of feeding will not be a cause of death. It is immoral, however, to remove the tube or to do anything else with the intent to kill the patient. In the objective moral sense, that is murder.Terri Schiavo is not dying. She has an indefinite life expectancy, she is not in pain and her bodily life is sustained by the feeding tube (the role of that tube is not to cure her PVS but merely to sustain her bodily life). The purpose of removing Terri’s feeding may have been to end a life considered burdensome to herself or others, but the specific intent was to achieve that purpose by an intrinsically evil act, i.e., the intentional killing of the innocent.But what’s the big fuss over Terri Schiavo? Every day uncounted, but surely numerous, people like Terri are murdered, in the moral sense of that term, because their relatives or care-givers are united in deciding to do to them what Michael Schiavo wants to do to Terri. And nobody notices. The lawyers and judges provide us an excuse to ignore in such cases the corporal works of mercy: Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. But another Lawgiver takes those works more seriously: “Depart from me … for I was hungry, and you did not give me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink … as long as you did not do it for one of these least ones, you did not do it for me,” Matthew 25:41-46.That Lawgiver, incidentally, seems to have a habit of holding nations as well as individuals to account.

Prof. Emeritus Charles Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at plawecki.1@nd.edu.The view expressed in this column are those of the author and not neccessarily those of The Observer.