Practice Areas Menu

Lessons from the Terri Schiavo Case

At this point, almost everybody has heard about the Terri Schiavo case. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to remove her feeding tube, just about everyone has an opinion on the matter.

Terri Schiavo is a 41 year old Florida woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state since 1990 when a chemical imbalance caused cardiac arrest and led to brain damage. She was placed on a stomach feeding tube. Her husband, Michael, obtained guardianship over Terri and sought to have the feeding tube removed because he says she told him she never wanted to be kept alive through artificial means. Terri's parents have opposed taking her off the feeding tube and they and her husband have battled each other in the courts over this issue.

The issue in the Schiavo case is whether Terri would have wanted to continue to be fed by artificial means if she was in a persistent vegetative state. Would she wanted to have been kept alive in this manner or would she have wanted the feeding tube removed and to allow nature to take its course? Ultimately the courts have all determined that she would not have wanted to be kept alive through artificial means.

If anything good comes from the life-and-death debate over Terri Schiavo, it might be this: more persons should realize they can spare their families a similar plight with a simple signature or two. This case is a tragic one that has torn a family apart. But it is a tragedy that didn't have to happen.

Had Terri Schiavo had a living will, it is likely that the legal battles would not be taking place at all or, would have been more limited. Had she had a living will, her family and her husband, as well as the courts, would have known what she would have wanted. If her beliefs were made known, everyone could have done want she wanted, rather than leaving it up to a court to make a decision as to what she wanted.

There are several important lessons we can learn from this case. First, everyone should consider what they would want in the event that they were to be in the same condition as Terri Schiavo. This is not an easy thing to do. No one enjoys thinking about their own mortality. Although it is perfectly natural to avoid thinking about life and death situations, sometimes it is necessary to do so.

Second, thinking about what you want is a necessary first step, but beyond that, it is necessary to put your thoughts into writing. The only way to do this is to sign a living will, what we in New Jersey call an "Advance Directive for Health Care". By putting your thoughts into a living will, your family, friends, health care professionals and even a court will know your desires if the event should happen.

Third, many people mistakenly believe that living wills are only for the elderly and sick. When we are young and healthy, we tend to believe that living wills are not necessary. The Schiavo case shows that this kind of tragedy can strike anyone, regardless of their age, and that everyone should have a living will.

If you are going to sign a living will, make sure that it is one that meets with New Jersey's Advance Directive for Health Care law. Merely because a document says "Living Will" does not mean it that it meets the New Jersey law. Further, all living wills must be signed with the same formalities as a Last Will and Testament. Having a living will that does not comply with the law may be the same as having no living will at all. We suggest that if you going to have a living will, it be prepared by an attorney so that you know it will meet the state's laws.

Hopefully, as a result of the Schiavo case, everyone will consider signing a living will. If this were to happen, Terri's plight will not have been in vain.