Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Fate of Terri Schiavo

The Terri Schiavo case is a wrenching moral issue. According to several reports I have seen, her condition is one from which she is unlikely to recover, though the remote possibility does exist. The story now revolves around the question of withdrawing a feeding tube that is her sole source of nutrition, as her condition prevents her from feeding herself. Indeed, her condition is called "Persistent Vegetative State", wherein all her cognitive functions, awareness, emotion, etc. have ceased. It is sometimes called "brain-dead", and typically patients in this condition do not recover.

The ethical and moral question of her feeding tube is a difficult one to answer, and for many it is a religious question. Who is to know what she might want in these circumstances were she able to make the decision hereself? Her husband, as I understand it, says that he and she discussed such a situation before she was afflicted and said she would not want to live under these conditions. Her sister and friends, however, argue that she was only 20-something years old when this happened and would never have even discussed death or near-death circumstances.

The fight has pitted her husband against her birth family. He wants to end her 'suffering', though based on what I have recently learned about her condition she really can't be suffering; her brain function isn't capable of feeling pain or awareness. Her birth family has apparently offered to grant him a divorce so he can move on with his life, and would take-on the responsibility of her care completely.

The question of removing her feeding tube is really one that should be stated like this: Since her condition is unlikely to improve, should we stop feeding her and allow her to starve to death? If it was a question about machines keeping her heart beating, or breathing, this would be easier. To remove life support from a heart that otherwise would not beat is morally acceptable to most people. But to stop feeding her is something else completely.

If parents stop feeding their babies, they will die just as surely as Ms. Schiavo will die after her feeding tube is removed. What would happen to parents if they stopped feeding their babies? They would rightly be prosecuted on charges of murder and/or neglect.

If Ms. Schiavo is not suffering—and the medical experts say she cannot—and her birth family says they will bear the entire cost and responsibility of her continued care, how can we as society starve her to death simply because her life has little quality and there little hope of recovery? We can't be certain she won't recover, and we also can't be certain that she doesn't have some sort of awareness, and society should not deny those willing to accept the burden of her care the opportunity to do so. It's the only moral and ethical choice.

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