In the final act of a lurid drama featuring a middle-aged businessman, a blonde mistress, a murdered wife and a bioethical dilemma, the life of a Melbourne woman in a vegetative state is ebbing away after her life support was removed. Fifty-year-old Maria Korp has been unconscious since February when she was strangled by her husband’s younger mistress and left to die in the boot of a car. At the request of the public guardian, the Alfred Hospital has now withdrawn food and water and she is expected to die within the next two weeks. When she dies, her husband Joe may face a charge of murder instead of merely conspiracy to murder. His lover, Tania Herman, has already pleaded guilty and been convicted.
Julian Gardner, the public guardian, denies that this is a re-run of the controversial Terri Schiavo case in Florida. "Bear in mind, this is somebody who had some fairly fearsome injuries," he told The Age. Injuries that she has never been able to recover from… injuries that are preventing her body from absorbing the food and using it in the way that Terri Schiavo’s body could to sustain her."
Although some pro-life activists have denounced the decision as murder by starvation, opposition from Catholic ethicists evaporated when Gardner declared that continuing treatment for the woman was futile and "unduly burdensome". Mrs Korp’s limbs have become so badly contracted that to provide ordinary nursing care they have to be forced apart, he said. Mrs Korp is said to be a practising Catholic.
Nonetheless, the case highlights how difficult it is to authorise withdrawal of treatment from unconscious patients, even burdensome treatment, without controversy. Columnist Andrew Bolt contends that this responsibility is too great for one man, especially since he is not required to justify his decision: "’trust me’ isn’t good enough when we’re talking about effectively killing people — and certainly not when Gardner says he had to overrule some in Korp’s family who did not want her feeding stopped." Bolt says that the public guardian ought to argue his decision before a panel of judges. "Let no one official, alone in a closed office, ever hold the sacred life of a citizen in his frail and clumsy hands."
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