Schiavo and Healthcare Rights

The right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo in Florida contains many disturbing facets.

The condition of Ms. Schiavo - said by her doctors to be in a vegetative state from which she will not recover - tugs at the heartstrings. Equally saddening is the unseemly fight between her husband and her parents over money and who knows best what her wishes would have been in such an event. He says she wouldn't have wanted to be kept alive in such a state; they dispute that. A succession of Florida court rulings has upheld the spouse's right to make the final decision about her treatment.

But the decision of the Florida legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to intervene in the case and attempt to overrule the judicial process is also profoundly disturbing. After Michael Schiavo decided Oct. 15 to remove the feeding tube that doctors say keeps his wife alive, the legislature rushed to pass an extraordinary law applying only to Ms. Schiavo, which attempted to overturn the court decisions and authorized Governor Bush to order the feeding resumed.

Governor Bush and state lawmakers may sincerely believe they are doing the right thing. In part, their actions reflect the deeply felt religious attitudes of many Americans toward sustaining human life as they define it. But it's hard not to suspect that their action is as much about "pro-life" politics and the 2004 presidential election as about Terri Schiavo's well-being.

Many legal experts believe the Florida Supreme Court will find the law unconstitutional - the state constitution guarantees the right to refuse medical treatment. Many say the law also infringes upon the separation of judicial, legislative, and executive powers.

If anything, the Schiavo case underlines the importance of having a written "living will" that outlines a person's desires about their future healthcare treatment. People have a responsibility to inform themselves about their state's laws governing such issues.

In the absence of a written document, many states assign responsibility for healthcare decisions regarding incapacitated persons to the spouse, sometimes after consultation with impartial doctors. If in those cases other family members are allowed to intervene and thwart the guardian's decisions, it's hard to know where the arguments would end. Parents could challenge children appointed as guardians and vice versa. Siblings could challenge each other. The result would be chaos.

In the end, decisions about healthcare treatment are best left in the hands of individuals, their legal guardians, and their healthcare providers, in accordance with state law.

The courts should get involved only to ensure that state law is correctly applied and to uphold all sides' rights in the process. But legislatures and governors - who are generally motivated by political considerations and are not competent to determine the patient's best interests or the effectiveness of one course of treatment over another - should not presume to diagnose individual cases or to prescribe treatment.

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