Is Schiavo a morally justified loss?

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The issues surrounding Terri Schiavo’s death are still complex and controversial. Yet despite the complexity and controversy, beneath the mound of legal and medical matters, there remains an unavoidable moral question: Was Terri’s death morally justified? It is my position that it was not.

Some argue that Terri’s death was legally permissible, and therefore morally justified. Under Florida law, Michael Schiavo was Terri’s legal guardian and therefore, it was his legal right to decide to end her life. I think this reasoning is questionable. Despite the fact that Michael and Terri were still legally married, and therefore he was her legal guardian, there seems to be good reason to suggest that there was a conflict of interest on Michael’s behalf. The fact that he had a common-law wife and another family called into question his ability to have Terri’s best interest in mind. To be sure, I’m not suggesting that Michael was totally incapable of such care; I am merely suggesting that there was and is reasonable doubt about the matter.

I may be challenged on the grounds that Michael was merely carrying out Terri’s wishes. It has been reported that Terri once expressed to Michael that she would never want to live in a persistent vegetative state. But it was nothing more than an unconfirmed report of a passing comment Terri made years ago. There was no legal document providing a clear expression of Terri’s will. So, the apparent conflict of interest on Michael’s behalf remained. That Terri’s death was legally permissible does in no way equate to moral justification. At one time, slavery was legal. Does that mean that slavery was morally justified? Of course not.

Others argue that Terri’s medical condition was so grim — perhaps even irreversible — that her death was morally justified. The claim here is that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state and that there was no hope of her ever recovering. The evidence for this derives from a medical assessment performed on Terri by five court-appointed neurologists in 1996. Three of the neurologists claimed that she was in a persistent vegetative state, whereas two claimed that she was not and that she could be rehabilitated. A reassessment of Terri’s condition was performed in 2002, after which a radiologist testified under oath that the 2002 test showed a normalcy that the 1996 test did not. So, from 1996 to 2002, there seemed to have been improvement in Terri’s condition. What should we conclude about Terri’s medical condition? Does the medical evidence really provide sure grounds for ending her life? It seems the only thing we can be sure of is that the medical evidence, to say the least, was in dispute. In difficult cases like this, it seems we ought to have erred on the side of caution, and therefore, we ought to have erred on the side of Terri’s life.

I may be challenged on the grounds that Terri’s death was merely a matter of allowing nature to take its course. The removal of Terri’s feeding tube, it has been suggested, simply allowed her to die a “natural” death. As I see it, this is a misrepresentation of the facts. Terri was not on life-support. Her heart and lungs were fully capable of functioning on their own. Terri was merely being provided food and water because she was unable eat and drink on her own. Is this a case in which a person was allowed to die because he or she was on the brink of death? Certainly not. Terri’s life was put to an end by means of starvation and dehydration. Once again, it seems Terri’s death was not morally justified.

It is clear that Terri was not just allowed to die; she was killed. Her life was intentionally ended. That’s killing. If Terri’s death was indeed morally unjustified, as I’ve argued, it follows that she was murdered. I realize this is a controversial claim to make, but I believe it’s the truth, and if this is the case, then I shutter at the moral impoverishment of our society. This truth about Terri’s death still saddens and frightens me.

John Parra is a junior philosophy major.