LONDON, March 31, 2005 ( – Special to by Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

  The death of Terri Schiavo – Euthanasia or Natural Death?

The tragic death of Terri Schiavo has reignited the Euthanasia debate in the United States and Canada.

Everyday we witnessed new media reports about Terri Schiavo. We heard conflicting commentary from bio-ethicists, physicians, and religious leaders as to whether dehydrating Terri was euthanasia or simply allowing natural death to occur.

To intentionally dehydrate and starve Terri Schiavo to death was euthanasia and I will clearly explain why.

Euthanasia is an intentional act or failure to act which causes a person’s death for reasons of “mercy.”

Therefore euthanasia is an intentional act or failure to act to cause death.

If a person is dying or nearing death their body often begins to shut down, meaning the veins and circulatory system are becoming unable to circulate fluids and food. To withhold fluids and food from a person who is dying or nearing death is not euthanasia but rather accepting the limits of life.

Terri Schiavo’s body was not shutting down and she was not otherwise dying. Withholding fluids and food from Terri Schiavo was not an acceptance of the limits of life but rather an intentional failure to act in order to cause her death. This is euthanasia.

Some bio-ethicists said that providing fluids and food to Terri Schiavo only artificially prolonged her life and possibly caused her pain and suffering. They claimed that the intention of withholding fluids and food was palliative and not euthanasia.

If a person’s body is shutting down then they become unable to benefit from fluids and food. Continuing to provide fluids and food to someone who is nearing death and who’s body is shutting down often causes pain and discomfort because the fluids and food have nowhere to go.

Providing fluids and food for Terri Schiavo was of benefit to her. Terri’s body could assimilate fluid and food without any problems. Therefore withholding fluids and food from Terri was not palliative. In fact, since Terri was not otherwise dying withholding fluids and food would cause pain and suffering.

Some bio-ethicists stated that providing fluids and food by tube to Terri Schiavo was extra-ordinary medical treatment and therefore always optional.

Terri Schiavo was not in need of medical treatment and her feeding tube (PEG) was inserted and effective. She didn’t need medical support, only fluids and food. Anyone, with minimal training, can feed someone in this way. There was nothing extra-ordinary about the care Terri was receiving.

In cases of euthanasia, the intentional act or failure to act is the cause of the person’s death. If the act or failure to act does not cause the death of the person then it is not euthanasia.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, her death was caused by dehydration. Terri was not dying of another cause, before having her tube was withdrawn she was not imminently dying. Therefore the withholding of fluids and food for Terri Schiavo was the intentional cause of her death. This is euthanasia.

Some bio-ethicists have said that Terri was so brain damaged that she was already dead. They claimed that the feeding tube was artificially keeping a dead person alive.

This is a dangerous statement which is based on a eugenic ideology. Nonetheless, Terri was cognitively disabled but she was not brain dead. To say that her life is not worth living is to say that all people who have a severe cognitive disability are not worth living.

Many commentators expressed that Terri’s wishes should be respected. Since Terri’s husband claimed that Terri would not have wanted to live this way, therefore dehydrating Terri to death is simply respecting her wishes.

There should be presumption in favour of life. I recognize that you can never force anyone who is competent to receive anything against their will, but when a person is incompetent to make decisions for themselves we believe one should always be provided the basic necessities of life, including fluid and food.

Terri Schiavo’s death is a case of euthanasia because her death was intentionally caused by dehydration for reasons of “mercy.”

Hopefully Terri’s death will result in legislation being enacted to protect people who are cognitively disabled from similar acts of death by dehydration.

Terri Schiavo died on March 31, 2005


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