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Five Years after Terri Schiavo’s Death

Five years ago today, Terri Schiavo starved to death — the result of a court order requested by her husband, Michael, to deny her nutrition and hydration.

Terri was not “dying,” she was disabled.  She had been diagnosed as in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), which is defined as being “awake” but unconscious.  Her parents, doctors, and others close to her disputed the diagnosis, noting that Terri was not only wakeful, but responsive.  They fought Michael’s request, and requested that Terri be given a chance for the rehabilitative therapy Michael denied her but funds for which had been awarded by a court.

Through the use of a new brain scanning technique known as functional MRIs (fMRIs), scientists have discovered consciousness in patients diagnosed in PVS five years ago.  Whether or not the current fMRI technique would have changed Terri’s diagnosis, such advances in technology prove at least that the scientific understanding about PVS at the time of Terri’s death was wrong.

Regardless, Terri’s death was not caused by an underlying illness.  Terri was denied nutrition and hydration because her husband and the court determined she was better off dead.

Data shows even when the patient makes the choice to die, concern for her own “well-being” is not the sole motivation for her wish to die.  The 2009-2010 Report from the State of Washington on their “Death with Dignity” law reveals that 23% of the patients who requested PAS cited “burden on family, friends/caregivers” as a reason for their request to die.  Thus, even “voluntary” assisted suicide and euthanasia often stems from the belief that those around the patient are better off with the patient dead.

Moreover, studies have shown the wish for assisted suicide among terminally ill patients is “strongly associated with depression” and an estimated 98-99% of those patients will change their minds about wanting to die once treatment for depression occurs.

Yet, provisions in assisted suicide laws requiring a patient be “mentally competent” provide no meaningful protection for the depressed and mentally ill.  Many doctors are not equipped to recognize or treat depression, and it is often improperly dismissed or considered untreatable.

Unlike Terri Schiavo, these patients are not receiving world-wide media attention.  While state and federal officials tried to intervene to save Terri’s life, these patients often lack any advocate for their lives.  Not even their doctors fight for them.

Five years after Terri’s death, her case is still misunderstood and misconstrued by many.  And new threats, such as legalized assisted suicide, have arisen.  More than ever we must be committed to protecting the disabled, the elderly, and the sick from coerced death.