Pulling the plug a humane decision

The law on pulling the plug on terminally ill patients took an interesting new twist this past week when Florida legislators voted to resume feeding of a woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state for the past 13 years.

After suffering from heart failure in 1990, Terri Schiavo has been sustained only by a respirator and a feeding tube that provides her with food and water. It seemed that a six-year battle between Schiavo’s husband and parents would end when courts ruled that the tube could be removed. But on Tuesday, a week after the tube was removed, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush used a hastily passed state law that overruled the previous court decision to allow the feeding tube to be removed.

Obviously, the intentional taking of a life is never an issue to take lightly. But under extreme circumstances such as this, we must consider the totality of the issue. For the past 13 years, Schiavo’s contact with the human world has been limited to simple eye reflexes. And while in the span of history 13 years may sound like nothing, it is a significant portion of time for anyone. In just the past decade, many students reading this have won great achievements, suffered great heartbreak, loved, lost, been defeated, rebounded and triumphed. In other words, they have lived. Schiavo may be alive, but she certainly is not living.

Keeping Schiavo alive in the selfish hope that she may recover – doctors place the odds of such a miracle at less than one in a million – is downright cruel. Expecting her to seamlessly adjust to life in 2003 is unrealistic at best – what she has missed out on in history and in her own life makes such an accomplishment almost as improbable as her chances for recovery.

This issue is particularly cloudy because the patient is non-responsive. In many assisted suicide scenarios, the patient is begging to be killed because of severe pain as a result of their illness. The controversy surrounding this issue is that Schiavo cannot communicate with those who are deciding her fate. The ensuing legal battle has divided her parents and her husband, who each see the issue very differently. Were she alive, Schiavo would certainly not want her family at such odds.

Deciding which circumstances qualify for pulling the plug is far too complex to be determined by black and white legislation. When life and death lie in the balance, all unique situations need to be treated as such. There is no one constant that can help us to solve cases like this, but in the life of Schiavo, the decision seems clear. Gov. Bush has overstepped his bounds – the feeding tube should be removed and Schiavo should be allowed to die with dignity.