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Too thin a line between life, death for Schiavo

Published September 15, 2003

There is a point that gets somewhat blurred in this long-running debate over whether to pull the plug on the life of the brain-damaged Terri Schiavo.

The point is, there isn't a plug to pull. At least, there isn't a plug in the sense that the term is usually used.

She is not hooked up to some machine that is breathing for her or pumping her blood. She is not in a coma, clinging to life.

Terri Schiavo lies in a bed while her 39-year-old body works pretty much like everybody else's. Her body functions under its own power. She wakes up in the morning. She goes to sleep at night.

She is not being kept alive with "extraordinary measures," except for one thing:

She is being fed through a tube.

So the decision to end her life is not as simple as flipping a switch, and having her body fail a few minutes later.

Instead, it is a matter of withholding nourishment and liquid from a body that otherwise might go on.

Maybe you still say:

"Well, that is okay with me. I wouldn't want to live life as a vegetable, and from what I hear about this case, she didn't want to live that way either."

And, you know, that is a defensible opinion.

All I'm saying is that there is a subtle difference of degree here. It seems to me that ending her life requires taking an active, extra step, not just "letting her go."

That may not be how the law sees it, though.

I talked to both sides in the case. George Felos is the lawyer for Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband and legal guardian, who seeks to remove the tube. Michael has fought in court for years against Terri's parents, who want to keep her alive, holding out hope that she might one day improve, if only slightly.

Felos told me that the feeding tube is precisely the kind of artificial measure - "being hooked up to a tube," as people often put it - that Terri told her husband she never wanted.

The tube, in short, is a form of medical treatment. People in Florida have the right under the Constitution and state statutes to refuse medical treatment, Felos told me.

I asked him - using a harsh example - what difference exists between removing the tube, and just putting a pillow over her face.

The first instance, he replied, is a Florida citizen exercising the right to refuse medical care, letting "nature take its course." The second is murder, or even if done at the patient's own wishes, still an illegally assisted suicide.

I also talked to Pat Anderson, the lawyer for Robert and Mary Schindler, Terri's parents. Anderson said there is a difference between a person expressing the desire not to live "hooked up to machines" and saying, "Be sure not to feed me. Be sure not to do anything to see that I get better."

Anderson and the Schindlers still hold out hope that Terri might be able to take nourishment orally, despite past findings that she is incapable. They draw a difference between removing the feeding tube and starving her: "Did she also say, no spoons for me?" Anderson asked.

I was surprised to see how specific Florida law is on these points. Chapter 765 of the Florida Statutes is careful to include "artificially provided sustenance and hydration" in the list of things that are considered to be "life-prolonging procedures" that may be declined.

The law goes on to state explicitly:

The withholding or withdrawal of life-prolonging procedures from a patient in accordance with any provision of this chapter does not, for any purpose, constitute a suicide.

I take no stand on the conflicting claims of the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo over Terri's mental capacity, nor on their various allegations of misconduct against each other.

In fact, it is helpful to think about the case in the light least favorable to each side.

Even if the Schindlers are wrong, and her body will be nothing but an empty shell forever, does that justify starving her to death? Or if Michael is wrong, and she adapts to taking nourishment orally, should we magically be barred from considering her past wishes about the kind of life she did not want?

If a spoon vs. a tube is the entire difference between life or death, it is too fine a distinction. I would not be able to let her die on that basis.

[Last modified September 15, 2003, 02:01:38]

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