Schiavo case was not about the “right to live”

I’m sick of reading articles like this one in the NY Times about how the Schiavo case was about the “right to live” vs. the “right to die”. This, frankly, is BS. What this fight was about is the extent that power of attorney goes.


Put simply: had Mr Schiavo wanted his wife to live, she would have stayed on the minimal life support that the feeding tube represented. Had the Schindlers (Mrs Schiavo’s parents and siblings) agreed she should die, that life support would have been terminated years ago. The US law has long recognised that this is a right covered by the power of attorney.

Individuals have the right to decide if they want extreme medical care. This results in such things as “do not resuscitate” orders. It also gives rise to “living wills”, because people can vest other people with authority to make decisions that they themselves could make (that’s what a power of attorney is).

If a person is incapable of making a decision, then the law has standard formulas (which do vary from location to location, but not by much) on working out who the person who should have power of attorney. This occurs hundreds or thousands of times every day, almost always due to tragedy of one sort or another.

With no living will in place, the law has to take the default position that, if the person’s legal guardian desires it, life support can be removed. Without this default position, life support could never be legally removed – arguably the position desired by the religious extremists who have helped to drive this debate, but hardly a workable one. So the question is how the authority is dispersed.

IANAL, but it appears that Florida law takes what I would call the sensible position: the authority is vested wholly in the default legal guardian (a spouse, in the case of a married person). This often creates conflicts in other ways, particularly when a person’s marriage is breaking down, but those circumstances don’t apply to the Schiavo case. As such, Mrs. Schiavo’s fate rested in the hands of her husband, who decided to remove life support after several years of therapy following her heart attack. It is this position (that the authority rests wholly with her husband) that the Florida courts upheld; subsequently, the Federal courts said that they had no business interfering with the powers of the Florida courts.

The Schindlers objected. They felt that they had a right to be consulted. They brought into place several challenges:

  • they felt that Mrs Schiavo’s condition was subject to improvement. Court-appointed doctors disagreed.
  • they felt that Mr Schiavo had waived his rights as legal guardian when he became romantically involved with another woman, several years after the accident. The courts decided this was irrelevant, because it was afterwards.
  • they felt that Mr Schiavo didn’t have the authority wholly within himself, that the authority had to be shared with them. And again, the courts disagreed.

The first two points would be case-specific, and the law already has guidelines to cover those grounds – yes, the Schindlers disagreed, but had they won on those grounds, it wouldn’t have been a huge upheaval. The last point is different.

If you share this authority, who do you share it to? The law caters shared authority – if Mrs Schiavo had been unmarried, for example, the authority would have vested jointly in her parents, and they would both have had to concur with removing life support. The law also has parameters for resolving disputes between people with shared authority (say, in the previous example, the mother supported it and the father didn’t). So there’s no technical problem to sharing, but who do you extend it to?

What if the parents had consented but her sisters didn’t? Would the sisters then be permitted to “veto” removing life support? What if a cousin objected? Or a really close childhood friend? Where do you draw the line?

This line has to be drawn somewhere. Somewhere, you need a line that says “These people can agree to remove life support from this person”. Without that line, there is no control at all.

It is fine to have a debate about this, but make it a sensible one. Make the debate one about where the line lies. And let’s not go down the line where, unless people have left “living wills”, they must remain on life support.

On a side note, it’s disgusting how this became so politicised. Even the Vatican got into this. Over 4 million people die each year from malnutrition. In the US, about 1 in 8 children go to bed hungry every night because they can’t get enough to eat. This is in a country that has to pay farmers not to grow food because of the economic impact so much cheap and available food would cause. It’s estimated that eliminating starvation worldwide would cost about $15-20 billion dollars – much less than, oh, the cost of invading Iraq. Vatican policies are directly responsible for families in the Third World, already starving, having even more children, many of whom die before reaching 10 from malnutrition. I’m sorry: you don’t get to take the moral high ground on the fate of one woman while having so much hypocrisy going on around you.

(Hey, did anyone catch the story about how Tom DeLay agreed to take his father off life support a few years back? I guess it’s easier to argue about the sanctity of life when it’s not your own family at stake)

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Author: Robert Watkins

My name is Robert Watkins. I am a software developer and have been for over 18 years now. I currently work for people, but my opinions here are in no way endorsed by them (which is cool; their opinions aren’t endorsed by me either). My main professional interests are in Java development, using Agile methods, with a historical focus on building web based applications. I’m also a Mac-fan and love my iPhone, which I’m currently learning how to code for. I live and work in Brisbane, Australia, but I grew up in the Northern Territory, and still find Brisbane too cold (after 16 years here). I’m married, with two children and one cat. My politics are socialist in tendency, my religious affiliation is atheist (aka “none of the above”), my attitude is condescending and my moral standing is lying down.

1 thought on “Schiavo case was not about the “right to live””

  1. There was an article I read the other day about the NY Post being taken over by Ruperts lackeys (and rupert himself editing and writing headlines).

    Perhaps NYT is catching the craze…

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