This day in history has two developments significant in the area of self-determination regarding medical extension of a patient’s life, also known as right-to-die.
On March 31, 1976, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Karen Ann Quinlan, a young woman in a persistent vegetative state, could be disconnected from her respirator. When she was 21, Quinlan became unconscious after she consumed drugs and alcohol while on a crash diet and lapsed into a coma. On September 12, 1975, her parents filed a lawsuit requesting she be removed from the ventilator. She remained unconscious and lived for nine more years with artificial hydration and nutrition (aka tube feeding). She died on June 11, 1985.
As Wikipedia noted: Quinlan’s case continues to raise important questions in moral theology, bioethics, euthanasia, legal guardianship and civil rights. Her case has affected the practice of medicine and law around the world. A significant outcome of her case was the development of formal ethics committees in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.
Also on March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo, 41, died at a hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida, 13 days after her feeding tube was removed following a wrenching 15-year right-to-die dispute.
Schiavo suffered cardiac arrest at her home in Florida on February 25, 1990. She was revived, and suffered severe brain damage due to oxygen deprivation. She went from being in a coma to a persistent vegetative state. Her husband Michael argued that Terri would not want to be kept alive in this condition. Her parents Robert and Mary Schindler argued that she was conscious and should be kept alive with artificial hydration and nutrition.
As Wikipedia noted: In all, the Schiavo case involved 14 appeals and numerous motions, petitions, and hearings in the Florida courts; five suits in federal district court; extensive political intervention at the levels of the Florida state legislature, then-governor Jeb Bush, the U.S. Congress, and President George W. Bush; and four denials of certiorari from the Supreme Court of the United States. The case also spurred highly visible activism from the pro-life movement, the right-to-die movement, and disability rights groups. Since Schiavo’s death, both her husband and her family have written books on their sides of the case, and both have also been involved in activism over its larger issues.
April 16 is designated as Healthcare Decisions Day. It’s an opportunity for adults as young as 18 to discuss and plan for care before a serious illness. You can utilize the Five Wishes form to state if you’d want to be kept alive if you found yourself in a persistent vegetative state. Get a copy from AgingWithDignity.org and talk to your loved ones.
Avoid becoming another poster child for right-to-die and get your wishes down on paper. It can speak for you should you be unable to speak for yourself. Remember, just as talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about end-of-life issues won’t make you dead. Start a conversation, and get your wishes in writing, today.