Terri Schiavo's Right to Live (8/04)

Seventeen (17) national disability organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief, the third disability brief in the case. These groups are concerned that the critical implications for our individual rights in the health-care system have been obscured by political rhetoric.  Terri Schiavo is a disabled woman; she is not comatose.The “right to life” movement has embraced Terri Schiavo as a cause to prove “sanctity of life.” The “right to die” movement says that no one would choose life over death in her circumstances. Since court proceedings in this case have gone the “right-to-die” way, they want the courts to have the last word. But on the sixth day of her dehydration and starvation last fall, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature halted the execution. Even the ACLU has weighed in, arguing that constitutional separation of powers precludes executive interference with the judiciary.  Yet the life-and-death issues surrounding Terri Schiavo are first and foremost disability rights issues — issues that ultimately affect millions of Americans, old and young.  These issues apply directly and immediately to thousands of people with disabilities who, like Schiavo, cannot currently process information or articulate their views to the extent that health-care providers require, and so must rely on others as substitute decision-makers. The Constitution requires that a guardian’s decision be based on written documentation or other clear and convincing evidence of the ward’s wishes, regardless of the guardian’s personal opinions or desires. In the modern-day United States, bioethicists are working to dismantle the due process part of the Bill of Rights that has previously protected people in guardianship from wrongful decisions to withhold life-sustaining medical treatment. ...