TOPICS > Politics

The Right to Live or Die

October 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The legal fight over Terri Schiavo began in 1990 when her heart failed, cutting oxygen to her brain. She was 26 and lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. Court-appointed doctors said Terri would never recover from the brain damage, and for the last 13 years, she’s needed feeding and hydration tubes to stay alive. That’s against her stated wishes, says Terri’s husband Michael. He’s been battling her parents in court, seeking to allow her to die.

MICHAEL SCHIAVO, Husband: Terri has been through years and years or rehabilitation. There’s no more improvement for Terry.

RAY SUAREZ: Last week, after Florida’s Supreme Court refused to block a lower court ruling in Michael’s favor, doctors removed the tubes, expecting Terri to die of starvation within two weeks. Her parents and siblings objected strongly, saying Terri never told them her final wishes. And she left no written directive.

SUZANNE CARR, Terri Schiavo’s Sister: Terri hasn’t had any chance to recover from her injury or whatever happened to her that night. And we believe she would want a chance at that. We don’t believe Terri had any wishes. We think she would never want to die a starvation death.

RAY SUAREZ: Late yesterday, Terri’s family cheered when Florida lawmakers passed a narrowly worded bill allowing the governor to order the tubes reinserted. Governor Jeb Bush issued that order soon after.

GOV. JEB BUSH: It was required given the nature of the situation. And they responded appropriately. They did the right thing I think.

RAY SUAREZ: So Terri Schiavo went from hospice care to a hospital for IV fluids. The feeding tube would come next. As for Terri’s husband, his lawyer George Felos says the legislature violated the constitution.

GEORGE FELOS, Lawyer for Schiavo’s Husband: She was literally absconded from her deathbed in the middle of her dying process. It’s hard to think of a worse intrusion of someone’s privacy.

RAY SUAREZ: Felos failed yesterday to have the order blocked, but he has five days to file additional arguments.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on this controversial case, we’re joined by speaker Johnnie Byrd of Florida’s House of Representatives — he is also a lawyer — and Kenneth Goodman, the founder and director of the Bioethics Program at the University of Miami. Speaker Byrd, why did you and your legislative colleagues in both the Florida House and Senate intervene in this case?

JOHNNIE BYRD: Well, something had gone terribly wrong with this process. The vast majority of the legislators in Florida and thousands of Florida citizens were — completely lost confidence in this process that seemed to be replete with conflicts of interest between the husband and the best interest of this beautiful lady. So, we had to intervene to give a clear signal to the Florida courts what the legislative intent and the public policy of Florida would be in cases such as the Terri Schiavo case.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Goodman, is there anything wrong with the legislature stepping in when it finds it can’t abide a court decision, when it strenuously disagrees?

KENNETH GOODMAN: It’s not merely a court decision but a series of decisions made by physicians and others over 13 years. It’s been through the courts quite a bit. And it has been the topic of extensive debate during all that time. It seems to a lot of people — and with all due respect to Representative Byrd — I think a lot of Floridians are actually quite troubled that the idea that, in fact, this process might run its course naturally be intervened with at the last minute is actually troublesome.

We agree completely that this is a beautiful woman. She’s undergone an extraordinary and difficult ordeal, but the right thing to do — and I think the legislature while it may have believed that, was actually on the wrong side — the right thing to do is after 13 years of permanent unconsciousness that she be allowed to die with dignity. I think most Floridians would support that.

RAY SUAREZ: In your reading of the law, Professor, what should have happened in the years after Terri Schiavo first was diagnosed as having severe brain damage?

KENNETH GOODMAN: Well, in fact, what should have happened is I think what happened. Certainly nobody was in a hurry to deprive her of life support. It has been 13 years. A number of neurologists and others have examined her. Whenever you have a family dispute, though, this is something we try and teach our students everywhere, and I assume representative Byrd agrees, the idea that all of us should take away is make clear that your loved ones know what your wishes would be.

There’s a dispute about whether or not her husband, who according to the law of Florida, would be her surrogate — has some conflict or other — something I’m not competent to address. Normally people want their spouses to make those decisions for them. In fact, a lot of people think that the parents of adult children actually don’t make particularly good surrogates for a bunch of reasons.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what does the law say though? Has there ever been any challenge to Michael Schiavo’s legal standing as his wife’s guardian?

KENNETH GOODMAN: Not as such, only the allegations against him in particular. The law puts after, for example, a court-appointed guardian, the spouse of someone who is unable to speak for him or herself as the primary proxy to make those kinds of decisions. That’s true in Florida. It’s true in many other states.

The problem, of course, is when you have a family dispute — and of course everyone’s heart goes out to the Schiavo family — when you have a dispute like that, courts are sometimes clumsy mechanisms for resolving it. But the best process that anyone could think of went forward and did over the last several years.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Speaker, is the professor right when he says that this is sort of complicated by the fact that there was no written end of life directive, that there was no document codifying Terri Schiavo’s end of life wishes?

JOHNNIE BYRD: Well, certainly, Floridians as well as Americans have the right of self-determination. Yes, if there had been a written declaration in this case, this case would not be here at all. The problem is, is a very cloudy section of law. The legislators, three out of four legislators, thought that the courts had gone off on a tangent. Above all, I don’t think you can cast this as just an inter-family dispute. Here we have loving parents who want to take care of their daughter — their only daughter. And if you look at these videos, I think you cannot characterize her as being in some sort of a coma. She responds to her parents.

The testimony I think in this case was is that she could have therapy and live a higher quality of life. And It’s not for us to say whether her life was worth living. We just need to err on the side of life. And I believe now with this new law, we will have another guardian ad item appointed, someone who has no conflicts of interest, you know, there were monetary incentives, I understand that Mr. Schiavo has another lady that he lives with and maybe even a child or one or more children by this other person.

And so I think to say that Terri Schiavo would like for her husband to make a decision to have her die a terrible death now — that assumes a whole lot that I don’t think the people of Florida see, nor does the legislature. I think the bottom line is we’re going to stop; we’re going to make sure that she has a chance to live and that hopefully her parents, who love her very much, can take care of her. And I think that a new objective guardian would be a good first step.

RAY SUAREZ: But in debating this bill, in writing it down and getting it through the House and Senate, were expert witnesses called to explain Terry Schiavo’s brain scans, people testify on her condition, that kind of thing — because you’ve expressed your impressions of the videotapes that the family has distributed.

JOHNNIE BYRD: I think that’s the whole point is that, you know, the more facts that come out of this case, each fact, each excruciating fact that came from this case led to a conviction by both legislators and lay people and citizens in Florida that something terribly had gone terribly wrong with this case, that there was a lawsuit in which the husband promised that he would take care of her for the rest of her life if only he could recover these dollars.

Then, you know, after the dollars had been recovered, all of a sudden he’s saying that she wanted to die. And I think that, you know, there’s something to this case that is disturbing to most people as these facts came out. I think that the only thing we could do is make a decision to respect life. You know, we’re talking about a human life. We don’t have any second chances on this case. And slow this thing down and let’s let another guardian take a look. And I think that we did the right thing. We protected life in this case.

RAY SUAREZ: But it wasn’t for the legislature a medical decision, was it?

JOHNNIE BYRD: No. The legislators make public policy. I think, you know, if the step back away from this case, you know, we have three branches of government. I’ll say that the legislatures have maybe, you know, delegated their authority too much to the court system. We’ve relied too much on the judicial system to make public policy when, in fact, the judiciary is very good at resolving disputes but very poor at making public policy.

So in this case I think some in the judiciary, some officers of the court, lawyers, have been somewhat — had maybe apoplexy over the fact that the legislature actually stepped in and said wait a minute, the public, what we meant when we passed this statute was this and that the public policy of Florida should be in cases like Terri Schiavo, that she does have the right to life and a right to a quality of life. It is not for us to judge the quality of that life. It is for us to protect that life. And so I think what you’ve had is a very clear signal from the legislature as to what our legislative intent was when we passed this law.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, you’ve heard the speaker refer to weaknesses in the system as it existed in adjudicating these cases. Are these matters, like for instance, his objections to the way the courts have acted in this 13-year saga a call to Florida to sort of address these so that every time there’s a right to die case, it doesn’t end up in the governor’s lap?

KENNETH GOODMAN: Well, the question of where right to die cases should end up is itself quite an interesting one. I actually agree with Speaker Byrd that the legislature thought it was doing the right thing. Unfortunately, I think the legislature was mistaken for a number of reasons. And it’s going to produce some very interesting constitutional questions that legal scholars will need to sort out. One thing that needs clarification in boldface is that the withdrawal of artificial hydration and nutrition does not produce a terrible death.

If that were the case, then Florida law and the law of 49 other states would not permit it. In fact, it’s done all the time at hospitals around the country and it can be done with dignity and it can be done in a way that shows as much respect for life as anything that we can imagine. Surely no one can say that after 13 years that we’ve been hasty in these sorts of decisions.

In fact, a lot of reasonable people in cases where there’s confusion I think would say — this is what I hear from ordinary Floridians I speak to — “for heaven’s sakes we’re really concerned about this. We want to make sure that this is not a debate about partisans trying to hustle the legislature. But now I’m worried. I mean, is there something I need to worry about — about the refusal of hydration and nutrition?”

The answer is absolutely not. Once again there’s obviously conflicting testimony in any kind of court case. But the courts ruled that the evidence before them from neurologists and other experts was that poor Terri is in a persistent vegetative state. What that means is she’s not having any conscious actions or thoughts or anything else. She’s not seeing. She’s not hearing. And she’s not feeling. Respect for life is something precious. And we all do agree that it’s important for courts and legislatures to protect it.

On the other hand, the right of people to say no to burdensome treatment has also been protected heretofore by Florida statute. The concern here is a dispute about, one, whether or not the diagnosis is accurate and, two, whether or not the husband is a good surrogate or not. But as I say, I think most reasonable people, a direction by the way the Florida statute takes elsewhere, would say that after 13 years of unconsciousness with the best experts saying there’s no alternative, surely morality makes room for that kind of treatment to be removed. That’s what the law says. That’s what ethics says, and, by the way, it’s what most of our major faith traditions say.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Speaker Byrd, thank you both.