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Florida errs in right-to-die case

Danielle Harris, of Pinellas Park, Fla., leans against a photo of Terri Schiavo and her mother Mary Schindler during a vigil outside the Woodside Hospice Villas Oct. 15 in Pinellas Park.
Danielle Harris, of Pinellas Park, Fla., leans against a photo of Terri Schiavo and her mother Mary Schindler during a vigil outside the Woodside Hospice Villas Oct. 15 in Pinellas Park.
/ Source: contributor

There have been plenty of bone-headed decisions over the years by government officials and legislators playing doctor in controversial medical cases. But few lawmakers have acted as rashly, ineptly and dangerously with respect to the public as did the Florida state Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush when they passed a last-minute law intended to stop the death of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman who’s been in a coma for more than 13 years.

Schiavo has been the subject of a bitter dispute between her husband Michael Schiavo and her mother, father and siblings. Terri’s husband has consistently maintained that Terri would not want to remain kept alive by medical technology in the vegetative state she has been in for more than a decade.

However, Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri’s mother and father, say they don’t trust Michael and believe that Terri would want to continue living even though she is almost completely incapable of any thought, feeling or mental activity. They also don’t trust the doctors who say Terri has suffered permanent brain damage and will never think again. In short, her parents are hoping for a miracle that Michael believes will never come.

The battle over whether Terri’s husband can discontinue her artificial nutrition and hydration in an effort to let her die has been in the Florida courts for six years. Nineteen judges sitting on six different courts have heard evidence from both her husband, the Schindler family, and a parade of medical experts.

No court has ever been persuaded that Michael Schiavo should be disqualified from making medical decisions on behalf of his wife. And no court has ever been persuaded that Terri has any hope of recovering from her severely brain damaged state.

So the courts have sided with Michael Schiavo using a well-established rule of law, which states that when a patient cannot communicate and has left no written instructions about their wishes, spouses have discretion about continuing or stopping medical care.

Governor steps in
The Florida courts finally had heard enough. Six days ago, as Michael had asked, Terri’s feeding tube was removed at the Pinnelas Park hospice where she has been residing. That is when the Florida Legislature — urged on by Gov. Bush — got into the act.

The Legislature passed a new law that orders the continuation of nutrition and hydration even when a person is in a persistent vegetative state, has not left a living will or advance directive, and has had feeding tubes removed. The law requires the use of a feeding tube even if a spouse has requested its removal.

As a result, Terri Schiavo has stopped dying. She is back in a Florida hospital in a coma with her feeding tube reinserted per an order from the Governor.

Why is the state’s decision so awful? The Legislature tried to craft a law that would apply only to Terri’s situation, but has instead created a policy that will have far-reaching consequences for all the state’s citizens.

Sadly, most people do not have living wills or other documents that state in writing who should make decisions for them or what they would want if they should fall into a permanent coma or be unable to communicate. Under the new law, every person in Florida who does not have a living will is now in a situation where a spouse’s decision to remove artificial feeding can be challenged.

But there is nothing medically special about feeding tubes — and the legal challenges will not stop there. Parents or siblings will now have more legal authority to override the decision of a spouse to stop kidney dialysis, ventilators or any form of medical technology that can maintain physiological function in someone who is dying or unable to think.

Sharpen your pencils
By ignoring its own court system, by ignoring the independent medical experts who examined Terri and by ignoring the principle that says spouses — not parents or brothers or sisters or cousins or any other relatives — have decision-making authority, the Florida Legislature and the Governor have called into question the right to die of every single person in the state who does not have a living will or advanced directive.

The good news is that the U.S. Supreme Court looked at these issues a decade ago in the case of Missouri’s Nancy Cruzan and affirmed the right to stop medically supplied food and nutrition to patients in permanent comas. There is every reason to think that the newly enacted Florida law is unconstitutional and will be overturned.

Florida legislators knew they were on thin ice in trying to intervene in the death of Terri Schiavo. Florida Sen. Jim King, the president of the Florida Senate, said after the vote: “I keep on thinking ‘What if Terri didn’t really want this done at all?’”

Senator, it is hard to imagine that Terri, you or anyone else would want to spend 13 years in a comatose state in a nursing home bed. But, because the Governor and the Legislature were not willing to honor their own legal system, there is a grave risk that she may well spend another 13 years — or longer — in this condition.

And what is worse, because of this law every single resident of the state now faces the same risk unless they fill out a living will. So Floridians, sharpen your pencils lest the legislature decides that you, too, cannot have the plug pulled.