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Assisted suicide, euthanasia become issues in Schiavo case

CLEARWATER, Fla. (BP)–Right-to-die and right-to-life proponents continue to square off in the widely publicized case of Terri Schiavo, a 40-year-old disabled woman whose husband is seeking the removal of her feeding and hydration tubes.

Denver-based End of Life Choices — formerly known as the Hemlock Society — launched a $60,000 campaign in December throughout Florida, where the Schiavo case is in the courts, to raise public awareness of living wills and other instruments for decision-making regarding medical and therapeutic care, according to an Associated Press report.

“Today’s headlines are full of the pain of unspoken wishes,” said one of the ads, which were purchased in major newspapers in Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Tallahassee. “Save your loved ones the anguish of making a difficult decision when you are unable to speak for yourself.”

As Southern Baptists throughout the country prepare for Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, Jan. 18, the discussion about living wills has prompted concerns related to assisted suicide and euthanasia. At issue is how easily the lines might become blurred between helping find comfort for someone who is ready to die and causing someone’s death outright.


Terri Schiavo is a brain-damaged woman who collapsed in 1990 due to unusual circumstances that caused her heart to stop beating. She is now in what some doctors term a “persistent vegetative state.”

The question is whether it is in Terri’s best interest to continue to provide her sustenance through feeding and hydration tubes. A Florida circuit court judge ordered the tubes removed on Oct. 15 after Terri’s husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, convinced the court that Terri had expressed a wish to not live on life support. Terri, however, left no advance directive. Meanwhile, Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, believe her condition could improve with therapy.

In Florida, people in a “persistent vegetative state” are considered terminally ill and basic nutrition is considered “artificial life support.”

The case received heightened international attention several days after the judge’s order, when the Florida legislature empowered Gov. Jeb Bush to issue an executive order, which was called “Terri’s Law,” to provide for the reinsertion of Terri’s feeding tube. It was predicted Terri would die of starvation and dehydration within seven to 10 days if her only source of nutrition and hydration were not reestablished.

Michael Schiavo, according to court records and according to the Schindlers, has not sought aggressive therapy for Terri in nearly a decade. After winning a malpractice settlement in 1992, Michael placed a “do not resuscitate” order on Terri and then began a long-term relationship with another woman more than eight years ago, with whom he has fathered two children.

Michael Schiavo’s attorney, George Felos, author of a book titled, “Litigation as Spiritual Practice,” successfully argued for the “right to die” before the Florida Supreme Court more than a decade ago. His philosophies conflict with those of the Schindlers, who are devout Catholics and proponents of the right to life. Felos is currently representing Michael Schiavo in a lawsuit contending that Gov. Bush’s actions were unconstitutional.

Pat Anderson, attorney for the Schindlers, told the Florida Baptist Witness in an interview that End-of-Life Choices (the former Hemlock Society) is using Terri’s situation inappropriately.

“They want to take advantage of Terri’s situation to prey on the fears of older Floridians,” Anderson said.

“Terri’s case is not about living wills,” she noted.

Because Terri did not have an advance directive or living will on file, it’s been only the court’s determination on the word of Terri’s husband that has caused the problem, Anderson said.

End-of-Life Choices, on its website, clearly advocates providing “options in dying for terminally ill, mentally competent persons,” and it promotes “the right of these individuals to hasten their death under careful safeguards.”

In Terri’s case, however, she is not able to demonstrate mental competence and there has been considerable controversy over whether she is in a persistent vegetative state. The organization nevertheless insisted on a link between the two in a news release by its chief executive officer, David Brand.

“It is our hope that tragic situations such as the Terri Schiavo case can be avoided in the future by encouraging people to speak out about end-of-life choices,” Brand said.

Anderson told the Associated Press that the organization is bent on promoting its agenda, even at the expense of causing confusion.

“Floridians need to know that this is the Hemlock Society with a new name, and they are trying to hide their pro-euthanasia agenda,” Anderson told the AP. “They are using Terri Schiavo to promote euthanasia.”

As an attorney, Anderson said she is weary of living wills because there is too much involved to outline what should happen in each and every situation. She also said living wills can be treated as “death warrants” by which medical personnel might refuse to render care in a complicated situation.

C. Ben Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics & contemporary culture at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill., and a leading Southern Baptist ethicist, told the Florida Baptist Witness he believes living wills are necessary only when patients and their families might disagree about end of life care. Otherwise, next of kin should make those decisions.

“Living wills are not dying declarations,” Mitchell said. “Living wills should not be used as a means to kill patients, but as a way to respect their wishes.

“The Schiavo case should remind us of the importance of having conversations about end of life treatment with our physicians and family members,” Mitchell said. “Medicine should not prolong the dying process, but neither should dying patients have to fear that their lives will be shortened by overzealous family members who have financial conflicts of interest.”

Anderson said there is room for fuzzy decisions and blurred lines. “Unfortunately, fidelity, like modesty, is a passe virtue,” she said in reference to Michael Schiavo’s cohabitation with another woman. “Adultery and abandonment don’t seem to count in this case.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness. Go to www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com. For more information on the Schiavo case, see the special section, “Terri Schiavo: A life at Stake,” at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan