29 March, 2005

A matter of life and death

Terri Schiavo lies dying in her hospital bed amidst the tug of war between Michael Schiavo (her husband cum guardian) vs. Bob and Mary Schindler (her parents).

This much-publicized incident has rocked the world. People have been taking sides based on faith, politics, human rights and what not. Criticisms are flying thick and fast. As for me, I am just wondering about some of the issues that Terri’s case has brought about in its wake.

1. Should we hold onto a terminally ill patient for years, waiting in hope for a miraculous cure or should we let them go? Like it or not, there are considerations at work here

  • The helplessness, pain and frustration of the patient and his/her caregivers. Those who have had to take care of a terminally ill patient clearly know how frustrating it can be to see a loved one suffering day after day as we pray on in the hope of a miracle. What horrors the patients themselves go through i cannot even begin to fathom.
  • The sheer economics of providing such long term medical care (over 15years in Terri’s case). In poorer countries, this would have been deemed a luxury that very few could afford

2. I feel that the right to die is as important as the right to live. However, in the absence of a living will, should another person’s word be considered absolute proof of a patient’s will to die? Or, should the fact that the body is not giving in so easily be seen as a will to live? I do not know the answer but I am sure this case will prompt more people to work out living wills so that there is no scope for debate and suspicion at a later date

3. Many terminally ill patients have sought out death. However, does death have to be such a slow, long drawn process as in Terri’s case, where starvation has been the chosen route? The doctors seem divided over the issue whether lack of food and water is causing Terri any pain. On the one hand, medical analogies are being cited to say there cannot be pain but on the other hand, morphine doses are being given to alleviate the pain if any. So what is it? Can anyone really know? And what must it be like to be in her parent’s shoes to sit helplessly by her bedside watching her slipping away in bits, not knowing…?

4. Should a person’s guardianship rest solely with a spouse, while the parents are still alive? Parents who have given Terri life only to watch helplessly as it is taken away by the State at another’s insistence? Can anyone blame them for accusing Michael who has anyway moved on in life – made a home with another woman and even started a family of his own, a family that will not be legitimate until Terri dies? But then again I am left wondering if it can all be so simplistic. Why would a man who has found love again not simply move on by divorcing an ailing wife and returning her to her parents’ custody? Why live through the accusations that the world is heaping on him and maybe on his family as well? Why would a man who at one point had taken the pains to study nursing so that he could care for his wife now fight the world to let her go? Is it really about money and gaining freedom as his accusers point out? And then, is it totally unthinkable that parents (knowingly or unknowingly) do not always know/act in the best interest of their child and that someone else may understand that person much better?

5. How much should a government and its legalities intrude into the lives of people, especially when no crime has been committed? Should they have the last say in matters that are entirely personal in nature or should they restrict their jurisdiction to more global and societal matters, leaving people to run their individual lives in peace under the shelter and safety net that a government provides?

And last but not the least I am left stunned by the irony of fate. An eating disorder has brought Terri where she is today. And to think that her death should come about by withdrawal of food and water makes me wonder...really wonder...

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