Allowing to Die

It is hard to imagine a more tragic or tortuous case than that of Terri Schiavo, the thirty-nine-year-old Florida woman whose husband and parents are battling over disconnecting her from the feeding tube that has kept her alive for thirteen years. Schiavo suffered brain damage after a heart attack in 1990, and according to most experts has been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) ever since. Doctors who have examined her say her brain has been all but destroyed. She had not executed a living will, nor did she identify a surrogate to make decisions about treatment should she be unable to do so herself. Her husband claims that before her heart attack she had expressed the wish not to be kept alive in such a condition. Her parents, who are Catholic, believe she is conscious and capable of making a recovery, or at least of learning, if given therapy, how to swallow food again. They have used the Internet to help rally public support, placing videos of their daughter “interacting” with them on a Web site. The cause has been taken up vigorously by Evangelical Christians, by prolifers, and by some Catholic groups. Yet what her parents claim are the reactions of a conscious person, most doctors argue, are only the ordinary, and meaningless, gestures of a PVS patient.

The legal battle has gone on for years, with the courts repeatedly siding with Schiavo’s husband, despite accusations of nefarious motives made against him by...

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