After the passions have cooled a bit, Congress intends on taking up the central issues that surrounded the Terri Schiavo case to determine whether federal action is needed to protect the rights of the disabled under guardianship regarding so-called “end of life issues”. The New York Times report makes clear that partisanship does not appear to be a problem, as both parties have called for hearings to make sure people like Terri have better protection in the future:
On Sunday, lawmakers of both parties agreed that Congress has a role to play in such cases and should contemplate legislation that would give added legal recourse to patients like Ms. Schiavo. While it is difficult to predict whether such a measure could pass, the Schiavo case has clearly pushed thorny questions about end-of-life care to the fore on Capitol Hill, as well as in state legislatures around the nation.
The Republican-controlled House already passed a bill that would allow the federal courts to review cases like Ms. Schiavo’s, in which the patient has left no written instructions, the family is at odds and state courts have ordered a feeding tube to be withdrawn. That bill evolved into one that was narrowly tailored to Ms. Schiavo.
Now some Democrats, prodded by advocates for the disabled, say Congress should consider whether such a law is needed.
“I think we should look into this and very possibly legislate it,” said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, who opposed Congressional action in the Schiavo case. Mr. Frank was speaking on Sunday on the ABC News program “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” Mr. Frank added: “I think Congress needs to do more. Because I’ve spoken with a lot of disability groups who are concerned that, even where a choice is made to terminate life, it might be coerced by circumstances.”
While I disagree with the NYT’s analysis of this as an “end of life” issue — Terri’s life only became endangered when Judge George Greer ordered her death by dehydration — I think that the developments in Congress provide some hope that we can avoid a repeat of this situation. We seem to have moved from a presumption of life to a presumption of whatever one’s spouse or guardian wants, regardless of any conflict of interest, and that rightly worries advocates for the disabled under guardianship. Most disabled people who require guardians cannot speak for themselves, and absent written instructions on their wishes for care, the decision to kill them when they suffer no terminal disease — and especially when other family members want to care for them, as in Terri’s case — should receive the strongest kind of skepticism.
Mark Steyn puts it brilliantly, as always, in his column today, titled “No Compelling Reason To Kill Terri Schiavo”:
I’m neither a Floridian nor a lawyer, and, for all I know, it may be legal under Florida law for the state to order her to be starved to death. But it is still wrong.
This is not a criminal, not a murderer, not a person whose life should be in the gift of the state. So I find it repulsive, and indeed decadent, to have her continued existence framed in terms of ”plaintiffs” and ”petitions” and ”en banc review” and ”de novo” and all the other legalese. Mrs. Schiavo has been in her present condition for 15 years. Whoever she once was, this is who she is now — and, after a decade and a half, there is no compelling reason to kill her. Any legal system with a decent respect for the status quo — something too many American judges are increasingly disdainful of — would recognize that her present life, in all its limitations, is now a well-established fact, and it is the most grotesque judicial overreaching for any court at this late stage to decide enough is enough. It would be one thing had a doctor decided to reach for the morphine and ”put her out of her misery” after a week in her diminished state; after 15 years, for the courts to treat her like a Death Row killer who’s exhausted her appeals is simply vile.
There seems to be a genuine dispute about her condition — between those on her husband’s side, who say she has ”no consciousness,” and those on her parents’ side, who say she is capable of basic, childlike reactions. If the latter are correct, ending her life is an act of murder. If the former are correct, what difference does it make? If she feels nothing — if there’s no there there — she has no misery to be put out of. That being so, why not err in favor of the non-irreversible option?
The facts of the Terri Schiavo case are complicated, contradictory, and evoke the strongest of emotions. That is precisely why we need to have a system set up to protect those who cannot speak for themselves. We cannot wait until one of these cases becomes so emergent that we have no recourse but demonstration and raw emotion. Bad decisions inevitably follow from that. Congress should take up this question and others like it, including whether the solutions should come at the federal level at all or rather provide a second line of fact-finding after the state level.
This is how we work within the system to keep injustice from occurring again. Encourage your representative to get involved in reaching a bipartisan consensus on how to protect those who are not dying from being killed through legal machinations.