Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Shiavo case--a family affair

I haven't weighed in on the Shiavo case yet, and I haven't followed it in anything approaching exhaustive detail. But I have my take on it, which I think is a bit different from most of what I've been reading.

I look at it as an excellent example of a case that is primarily and essentially a family dispute. I don't know whether these parties have ever tried mediation or family therapy--not that either would have led to a resolution, of course, but I wish they'd been tried.

If Terri herself had left written instructions in a living will, we wouldn't be having this discussion at all; her wishes would have been carried out. In the absence of such written instructions, if both parties (the parents, the husband) had been on the same page about what Terri wanted, we also wouldn't be having this discussion. Even without that agreement between the parties on what her wishes might have been, if both parties themselves agreed on what they wanted, we wouldn't be having this discussion. The only reason we are having this discussion is that Terri's husband and parents disagree, and disagree strongly enough to have a court battle.

To me, it would have been best if her husband and family could have reached some agreement out of court. Since that didn't happen, and has no chance of happening any more, it becomes a court case. As far as I can see (and, once again, I have to say I have not read a vast amount of documentation about this case), the issue becomes twofold: is Terri's husband correct in his statement of what her wishes were; and, if we can't know for sure, whose wishes should be paramount, the husbands's (to "let her die") or the parents' (to "protect her right to life")?

In human terms, this case is nothing but a tragedy, from start to finish. A beautiful young woman in the prime of life reduced to this sort of twilight lingering dependency. Heartbroken parents, a husband who was probably heartbroken too, albeit in a different way (I will assume here that Michael Shiavo's motives are good; I know others would disagree). All possible outcomes are almost unutterably sad. To look at photos of Terri's grieving parents is to see a pain that is nearly unbearable.

But in legal terms, here is my suggestion: I think that Florida law, which to my understanding favors the rights of a spouse over the rights of parents, should be amended to read that the paramount right to decide (in the absence of written expressed wishes of the ill person) should rest in the spouse unless another first degree relative has been the primary caretaker for a certain time, in which case that caretaker/relative would have rights equal to or greater than the spouse. I'm not sure what the details of such a law would be in terms of what that length of time should be, or how to define "primary caretaker," but I'm sure the legislature could duke it out on that and come up with something more fair than the present law.

I would also suggest that it be mandatory that the parties to such a dispute be required to try a course of mediation, and/or of consultation with a family therapist specializing in medical family therapy, as a prelude to any court hearing. This sort of thing is done in some states for child custody battles, for example, and I see no reason why it couldn't be tried in cases like this. Of course, such an amended law won't help us in the Shiavo case, but it might help for future cases.

If Terri dies soon (and it is looking more and more as though she will), her parents are going to have to go through a terrible time of pain and anger. I can only hope, if she is to die shortly, that it happens as painlessly and easily as possible, and that her parents get a lot of help, support, and love--whether through therapy or their church or friends or family or all of the above. They will need it.

ADDENDUM: I just came across this Charles Krauthammer piece in which he says essentially the same thing I've said here. I find this interesting because Krauthammer is a psychiatrist as well as a very fine writer. He approaches questions with that perspective, and it gives him a different take on many subjects. Not only that, but he has a special sensitivity, I think, as a person with a disability himself--he is a quadriplegic from an accident he sustained as a young man.


At 2:30 AM, March 24, 2005, Blogger Robbie said...

This has been the best comment of many I've read on the case, and the only one not to attack one side or the other.

Personally, I would change your proposed law so that if there were no living will, any first degree relative willing to be primary caretaker would be given that, except in a case where there is chronic pain. Err on the side of life is a good motto to me.

(an aside: nobody I've seen on Mr. Shiavo's side has considered the parents. Its as if they can't see them.)

At 2:43 AM, March 24, 2005, Blogger Robbie said...

note: I see Charles Krauthammer said what I said, though of course better. The issue of chronic pain seems to be implicitly assumed as something a first-degree relative would take into consideration. I think that's better than leaving it to the law to decide what chronic pain is.

At 10:09 AM, March 24, 2005, Blogger ljmcinnis said...

Ditto. Thanks for saying it for me once again.
I especially appreciated the link to Mr Krauthammer's post. I had seen and heard him on tv but had no idea of his own physical condition, which I think in this case, only gives his opinion more weight and credibility.

At 4:42 AM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

If they removed her water supply, she did not die painlessly. She died with her body drained of life saving water, with tissues and cells failling one by one because osmosis no longer worked to supply cells with food.

Death by starvation takes weeks. Death by dehydration is one of the cruelest tortures imaginable. One would not subject one's dog to that, let alone a human being. Michael is coward to take the way he did, regardless of his good or bad intentions.

And the thing I hope we derive from Terry Schiavo's death is a law that lists Capital Punishment as "Death by starvation and dehydration".


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