Euthanasia and the Will to Live
The denial of food and fluids to Terri Schindler-Schiavo, the 36 year old Florida woman in a vegetative state since a heart attack, has caused Americans to ponder the fact that any one of them could be in this woman's place for a variety of reasons, like an auto accident, fall, mishap, etc. And most Americans don't want to be treated by their family as Terri is being treated by her husband - being denied food and fluids in order to hasten death.
It is appropriate to be appalled, but no one should be shocked. Denial of food and fluids to people who cannot speak for themselves has been going on for fifteen years in this country. It is routine practice in hospitals and nursing homes across the country. And for over a decade, the law on this, established by numerous court decisions and statutes, has been largely settled. If someone who is now incompetent to make health care decisions has not left clear instructions in a legal document (variously called an "advance directive," "durable power of attorney for health care," "living will," or the like), then a surrogate decision-maker can legally decide to cut off the person's food and fluids.
The surrogate decision-maker is normally whomever is classed by the particular state as the closest relative, but if no relatives are available may be a guardian or even the person's doctor. Such surrogates are daily authorizing the cutoff of food and fluids to patients who are unable to speak for themselves and never gave any indication that they might want to be starved. Only in the comparatively rare cases when there is some dispute among relatives, such as in the Wendland case in California, the earlier Hugh Finn case in Virginia, and the Schindler-Schiavo case now...