July 1, 2022

Schiavo debate continues to smoulder

The controversy over the death of Terri Schiavo continues to smoulder in the media. Journalists and bioethicists have been reflecting on the consequences of her death after more than 15 years in a persistent vegetative state. The feud between her husband Michael, who successfully asked the courts for her feeding tube to be withdrawn, and her parents, who opposed it, has not ended. Michael arranged an autopsy to determine the extent of Terri’s brain damage, but refused to allow her parents to get a second opinion. He had her body cremated.

Other issues which have surfaced in the media include:

  • the need for living wills (or advance directives): Many bioethicists recommend that people put their preferences about end-of-life care in writing and secure their relatives agreement.
  • the possibility of harvesting organs from PVS patients: It sounds gruesome, says bioethics journalist Wesley J. Smith, but it follows logically from regarding Terri as a “human non- person”. In his televised debate with Florida bioethicist Bill Allen, Allen agreed that there would have been nothing wrong with using her organs, as long as a guardian consented — “just as we allow people to say what they want done with their assets”.
  • obsession with body image: The heart attack which caused Terri’s brain damage was apparently triggered by a serious eating disorder. At the time she was having IVF treatment and the treating doctors failed to diagnose her bulimia. The lawyer who won the medical malpractice suit claims that she should be seen as a victim of lookism” — the need to conform to a stereotyped body image.