Families urged to discuss death wishes following Schiavo dispute

With the death of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman who set off a debate about life and death choices, right-to-life and right-to-die organizations said they will increase awareness about the importance of communication within families regarding death wishes.

Some right-to-life organizations said any review of judicial nominations must also include a litmus test of whether or not a judge supports the right-to-life.

“(I) hope (the Schiavo case) leads to discussion in advance with families,” said Stephen Jamison, California coordinator for Compassion and Choices. “It shows the need to communicate within families to intelligently make decisions and choices.”

Jamison said he hopes the Schiavo case will highlight the need for durable power of attorney for health care and living wills.

“All families are touched (by the Schiavo case),” Jamison said. “It is vital that people get (their) wishes written down, and (that) conversations are spoken while they are healthy.”

Schiavo, according to several doctors who reviewed her mental state, was considered to be in a permanent vegetative state. This sparked many legal battles between her husband, Michael Schiavo, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, about who had legal custody and the right to decide whether or not her life-supporting feeding tube should be removed.

Michael Schiavo, according to many reports, said Terri Schiavo had told him and other witnesses that she would not want to live artificially. Her parents argued that Terri Schiavo was a devout Catholic, and that she would never say she did not want to live with feeding tubes.

The Schiavo case has fueled debate among conservative right-to-life groups and right-to-die groups over whether Congress should impose legislation that would determine whether a spouse or a parent has the custodial right to decide whether that person should live or die in the absence of a living will, and whether state and federal courts should be given the power to make decisions about end-of-life issues.

“(The) judiciary (system is) completely cold to the fact that on hearsay evidence, we are going to starve someone (like Terri Schiavo) to death,” said Christy Hemrick, spokesperson for American Values. “We need to question the motives of the people making the decisions.”

Still, both right-to-life and right-to-die organizations agreed that the Schiavo case will impact the way families communicate about their end-of-life wishes in the future to avoid any publicity of private matters like what has occurred in the Schiavo case.

Hemrick said her organization will attempt to get more individuals involved in the right-to-life issue. She said the Schiavo case has brought the issue to the forefront.

“We must encourage conversation between families,” Hemrick said.

Rita Marker, executive director for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, said the Schiavo case will impact the way people discuss right-to-life issues, especially among individuals with family members who are disabled. Marker said the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was “death through starvation.”

“The question is ‘Do you want to die like this?’ not ‘Would you want to live like this?'” said Marker, one of the attorneys who worked with the Schindlers on the Schiavo case.

John Zaller, professor of American politics and public opinions at UCLA, said the Schiavo case can be compared to other key legal and political battles in American history that have impacted the way Americans discuss and consider issues. He said the impact of the Schiavo case will force Americans to discuss end-of-life issues.

“People are caring more, (and) that is why it’s being covered (by the media),” Zaller said. “People will also be more careful about living wills.”

According to Jamison, the battle over what Terri Schiavo wanted, in regards to end-of-life choices, will encourage many Americans to inquire about living wills, and whether a living will can provide families relief from making difficult decisions about medical treatment.

A living will specifies a decision made by a person describing whether or not to except certain types of medical treatment. A physician must then adhere to what is included in the living will.

Martin Saiz, political science professor at CSUN, said if a person wants to be clear about his or her intentions, a living will is a good idea. But he also said living wills are not always definite, and can be overwritten for several reasons.

Despite what right-to-life and right-to-die organizations said the impact the Schiavo case may have on a family’s end-of-life discussions and judicial nominations, Zaller, Saiz and other political analysts said it is unclear what effects the case will have on the United States.

“(I’m) not clear how much affect it will have on policy,” said Timothy Groseclose, UCLA assistant professor of political science.

The U.S. Senate Compromise Bill 686, also called the Palm Sunday Compromise, was a watered-down bill, according to Groseclose.

The bill gave the Florida Federal District Court the jurisdiction to review claims of alleged violations of Schiavo’s constitutional right to render a decision. It was designed only for the Schiavo case, so that it may protect only the constitutional rights of Schiavo. The bill does not affect assisted suicide, and has no affect on the patient Self-determination Act of 1990, Groseclose said.

Saiz said Congress could write legislation that would give a parent, not a spouse, the right to decide whether a person should live or die. Currently, a spouse’s guardianship is a state issue.

Many right-to-life and right-to-die organizations blame democrats and republicans for the long-lasting court battles in the Schiavo case. Some right-to-life activists said democrats attempted to devalue the life of Schiavo. Right-to-die activists, however, said republican interests in the case were politically motivated.

Fred Edwords, editorial director for the American Humanist Association, said republicans were hurting themselves by attempting to push legislation on end-of-life issues through Congress.

“She was needlessly prolonged for political benefits,” Edwords said. “She was (put) through the ringer for a political game.”

Jamison said the Bush administration is politically motivated to specify its beliefs on certain issues.

But, Hemrick said democrats and liberal judges attempted to thwart the Schiavo ruling.

“We need to evaluate what kind of judges we are going to put into place,” Hemrick said. “We need a better judiciary (system) that is not committed to rejecting the demands for life. We have a troubling legal situation, in regard to the way we are dealing with people (who) are vulnerable.”

Some critics argued whether giving Schiavo a physician-assisted injection that could have quickened her death may have been a wiser choice than the removal of her feeding tube and hydration, said Marker.

“The real option was to give food and water,” Marker said.

However, both right-to-life and right-to-die organizations said they agree that communication about one’s end-to-life wishes among families and health care providers must be addressed in advance.

“We need to specify when enough is enough for ourselves and our families,” Jamison said.

Correction

In this article, information stating that U.S. Senate Compromise Bill 686 does not affect assisted suicide and has no effect on the patient was incorrectly attributed to Timothy Groseclose. The information was taken directly from the bill.