Schiavo case’s effects explored

Friday, April 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:04 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]

When Zoe Smith and her husband, Conrad, created a living will in 1992, she never thought she would need to use it.

“It’s really important to have a living will. You hope you never need it, but it’s when you do need it that you thank your lucky stars that you have it,” she said.

Smith discovered the value of advanced directives first-hand several weeks ago, when her husband had a stroke and hit his head on the kitchen floor, causing massive head trauma. Because he had a living will, Conrad Meier died nine hours after being taken off life support, hours that his wife called the longest of her life.

“I can’t even fathom what that family is going through,” Smith said about Terri Schiavo’s family. “It’s excruciating to even hear that this family has been fighting like that for years. It breaks my heart.”

The legal battle surrounding Schiavo’s death on Thursday is one that has gone on for years, but the court decisions made regarding her care will continue to spark further legal debate over end-of-life care.

Schiavo’s situation is not uncommon, and many people wonder what legal precedents or legislation will come out of the case. Philip Peters, who is the Ruth L. Hulston professor at the MU School of Law and teaches health law, said the decisions made in the Schiavo case would not directly affect Missourians.

“This was an interpretation of Florida’s laws, and then an application of those laws,” Peters said.

Rather, Peters said the issues surrounding Schiavo’s death may prompt legislators to explore existing laws at greater lengths. That was the case on Thursday when Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O’Fallon, filed a bill that would prohibit doctors in Missouri from removing feeding tubes from patients who lack living will directing their removal.

Peters is surprised that such a proposal happened so quickly, but is concerned about the impact such legislation will have on Missourians.

“It is likely to thwart the wishes of many people because most people don’t do living wills,” Peters said. He added that most people do not want to be kept alive using life support. A recent poll by ABC News reports that eight out of 10 Americans do not want to be kept alive by artificial means. The poll sampled 501 adults and the results have a 4.5 point error margin.

The laws pertaining to end-of-life care and removing life support are relatively similar across the country, though the details for dealing with such cases vary. The main standard is that a patient’s wishes, proven with confidence, govern cases like Schiavo’s, Peters said. He said the court system worked well in the Schiavo case because her family received sound legal advice to explore creative ways to keep fighting for their daughter’s life.

Matters of end-of-life care are usually reserved for individual states to handle, though consulting a judge is usually the last resort in a case in which a patient’s wishes about his or her care are not clear. In this case, Peters said, the situation was particularly bitter because there was a mixture of Schiavo’s family’s disagreement with her decision to refuse life support and doubt that her wishes, expressed through her husband, were accurate. In most cases, Peters said disagreements among family members regarding care are usually resolved through communication and working with one another in the best interest of their loved one.

As for Smith, a professor at the MU School of Journalism, she is telling everyone she knows to create a living will.

“It’s my new campaign,” she said. She points out that anyone, regardless of age, should make a living will, and that doing so is relatively easy and inexpensive.

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