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The doubts shaping life, death decision


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 30, 2000

Terri Schiavo's story is terrible to contemplate.

Her heart stopped in February 1990, perhaps as a result of a chemical imbalance caused by her throwing up repeatedly to stay thin. She was deprived of oxygen for five minutes and she has not awakened since.

Her husband wants her feeding tube removed so she can die. Her parents want it to remain.

They disagree on what Terri Schiavo would have wanted.

Her husband, Michael Schiavo, says she wouldn't want to live like this, in what three doctors said in Pinellas circuit court last week is a permanent vegetative state. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, cling to the hope represented in her occasional cries, laughs and moans.

They know that once in a very great while the impossible occurs: This past Christmas, a New Mexico woman who had been in a coma for 16 years woke up. Last April, a pregnant woman in Los Angeles came out of a monthlong coma and gave birth to twins.

But these rarities are not why Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer has no business pulling that feeding tube.

The law says Terri Schiavo's own wishes have to be known by "clear and convincing evidence." The evidence so far is neither.

But there are more elemental reasons for keeping Terri Schiavo alive -- 700,000 of them.

Terri Schiavo left no will. If she dies, her husband Michael stands to inherit $700,000 from a malpractice settlement she won several years ago.

He has said he would give the money to charity. Although he is engaged to another woman, he also says he doesn't want to divorce Terri. If he did, he might have to pay her alimony. And he would probably lose the $700,000 to her, for her care, according to lawyer Richard L. Pearse Jr. of Clearwater, who was temporarily Terri's guardian.

Terri's parents also have a financial stake here, although it's more remote. If Terri and Michael were divorced, and Terri later died, her parents would inherit the $700,000.

"Nobody is free of some sort of financial conflict, actual or potential," said Pearse, who testified in court last week and wrote a report to the judge recommending that Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube remain.

We turn to judges in cases like this when families can't make their own choices.

They often consult with medical ethicists too. So I did -- with Peggy DesAutels, who teaches philosophy at USF. For some years, she sat on the ethics committee at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, helping family members decide whether or not to prolong the lives of the dying.

When relatives disagree, DesAutels said, "the decision has to fall with keeping the patient on life support."

"If you're going to err, you want to err on the side of keeping someone alive. It can be very sad to watch, because often it appears the patient is suffering."

This is where the going gets rough. Nobody would want Terri Schiavo's life to be any worse.

But what choice is there, when her wishes are uncertain, and money could motivate her husband?

I've come to a conclusion that is the utter opposite of where I began, on the side of Michael Schiavo. As his wife's closest kin, he should have the right to decide for her, I thought.

I was thinking of what I want, what most of us want -- no extraordinary measures to keep us alive at the end. I started out where we all would, in matters like this, relying on my heart.

But this case has too much ambiguity. Discomforting as it is, I've come to believe that this life that isn't much of a life at all should be prolonged, for now.

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