An Application of Philosophy and Bioethics in the Terri Schiavo Case Essay

An Application of Philosophy and Bioethics in the Terri Schiavo Case

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The question derived from the judicial decision regarding the Schiavo case is one which ponders on the nature and extent of the concept so often taken for granted: life. When does life begin and what constitutes the same? In the case in particular, Terri Schiavo was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state which was defined as “The vegetative state [which] is a behaviorally defined syndrome of complete unawareness, to self and to environment, that occurs in a person who nevertheless experiences wakefulness (Wikipedia, 2007).” The diagnosis thus showed that in terms of behavior Terri did not exhibit patterns of response or communication. For the diagnosis to prosper, support was also required from results obtained through medical tests. In Terri’s case, brain scans served to show that areas of Terri’s brain had been affected and rendered inactive by her condition. In fact, by the end of her life practically only half of the average brain weight of a woman her age was observed to have been retained in her skull. Terri Schiavo at that time could not have been found to still be alive. Certainly the concept of life must necessarily encompass more than the presence of a physical body and more than the observance of occasional reflexes. It cannot then have been Terri’s life that was being preserved through life support. Given the gravity and permanence of her condition, it was well within bounds for her husband, Michael Schiavo, to petition for the stop of life support for Terri.

After her collapse up to the time of her death, there was no certain empirical finding that Terri had a semblance of control over her mental faculties and cognitive processes. In main, the strongest evidence to disprove the same was:

Her parents argued that at times her actions indicated responses to external stimuli, not instinctive or reflex behavior. For example, the Schindlers claimed that their daughter smiled, laughed, cried, moved, made childlike attempts at speech, and attempted to say “Mom” or “Dad”; or “yeah” when they asked her a question. They claimed that when they kissed her, she looked at them and sometimes puckered her lips. (Wikipedia, 2007)

Such actions were taken to be the telling signs of life still held by Terri. These served to better support the opposing argument however as it was shown in court that out of six hours of observation less than six minutes of supposed interaction was yielded. A subsequent observation schedule kept by a supposed supporter of the Schiavo side to the debate also yielded the results that the alleged interaction with Terri occurred sporadically and with extended lulls in between events (Wikipedia, 2007). This shows that it contrary to the assertions made by Terri’s parents, it would be more accurate to describe the interaction events as reflexes rather than actual reflections of life. The areas of the brain left in the hemispheres of Terri’s skull may have been sufficient to recognize certain stimuli and to retain appropriated responses for certain cues, such as puckering her lips when someone kissed her, but it was not sufficient to have her fully appreciate her circumstance or to respond to the same. It was proven that the remnant of her brain matter was not sufficient to sustain the healthy and full life that individuals are said to have a right to.

            At the final battle, the debate boils down to an individual’s right to life and the role of the family, society, and state to protect the same. The right to life here was not violated because the existence Terri subsisted in was not the life postulated in the phrase ‘right to life’. The life enshrined not only in Terri’s religious belief but also in the Constitution envisions a healthy life where an individual is afforded the opportunity at a minimally satisfying life. As applied to this case, there is no means by which to even assess the situation Terri is in, how much more is she not capable of measuring the extent of satisfaction she could derive from the same. The right then is waived, inasmuch as the concept of life is considered not to apply. Without the express waiver of the right, the inability to decide, communicate or respond corresponds to implied waiver. This should be taken with a degree of consideration.

The waiver of the right does not necessitate the invalidation of the duty to protect the same. As earlier mentioned, the different spheres of society are invested with the obligation to protect the right to life of others. When Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband, decided to affirm the waiver of the right to life, he had the capacity to do the same. Being her husband and legal guardian, Michael possessed the moral as well as legal standing to make a decision for Terri, given that she could not do so for herself. Regardless of the fact that Terri made no prior mention of manifestation of her desire if such situation should beset her, Michael still held the final decision in this matter. Given that Michael had already taken exhaustive measures to revive Terri, it cannot be said that he acted in bad faith. In fact, knowing that Terri was not getting better and that modern medicine had no means by which to cure her, Michael made the decision which benefited best the interests of Terri. Without the ability to enjoy existence, life becomes dependent on nothing more than the confluence of impulses, reflexes and biological structures enabling the same. Accepting that the latter was the subsistence which Terri enjoyed given the circumstances, Michael’s act was not one of murder, rather, it was a final act of service to the needs of a wife he had loved.

Those opposed to this view would most likely argue that although Terri’s condition had significantly debilitated, the power to decide what to do or not to do regarding Terri’s life was not Michael’s. Several other persons could have been perceived to have held this power to decide for Terri. Given Terri’s Catholic background (Wikipedia, 2007), it was postulated that she would have considered God to have the final say in the matter. Since God gave Terri the life she enjoyed, the right to take it away vested on Him alone. Particularly, when the collapse did not lead to immediate death and led instead to the vegetative state observed, then God must have had a purpose for her survival. To state it more plainly and in common language, “It must not have yet been her time.” There is also the matter of Terri’s parents. Terri’s parents, being her closest blood ties and her legal guardians until she married, should have been consulted in the matter of stopping treatment and the use of the feeding tube. Lastly, the decision to waiver a right is held only by the person holding the said right. Thus, with Terri unable to decide in her condition, no express waiver is possible. Regardless of the probability of Terri’s condition being bettered, those concerned, particularly her appointed guardians, should wait for the moment wherein she could express her own decision regarding the continuance of life-support. The taking of life is seen as an act which is inherently wrong, regardless of whether or not one ascribed to the belief of a higher being. This inherent right to life cannot be bypassed no matter the circumstances pertaining to a particular person. Thus, even though standards of living are not seen to be minimally satisfying or even if there is no assessment of life as satisfying or not, an individual must not be deprived of existence. The presumption is for life to be present, particularly if there are instances, even if remote and rare, that reflect behaviors that are unique in living individuals in charge of their faculties.

A Kantian perspective would forward the argument for the vesting of rights and for the freedom of each person to exercise the same. However, the free exercise of right stems from a categorical perspective wherein each person is viewed as not merely means but as ends in themselves. The exercise of rights then is not contemplated in a vacuum. Thus, the entire argument propelling forward the protection of Terri’s right to life may not have been so much a struggle for her free exercise of the same. It is possible that the fight for her continued existence was to serve more the needs of the Catholic Church to promote pro-life choices; or the needs of companionship and love of her parents; and the like. Terri’s meager existence would then have served only to promote benefits for others, she would then have been a mere means to an end. Kant argues that it is immoral to encumber the freedom of other people unless the encumbrance should entail that the persons are ends in themselves. To be an end in one’s self entails that the benefit to be derived falls also on the individual in question. Although it is not required that the means to an end derive greater benefit than the final end, no degree of benefit could be shown to be derived by Terri in her case.

The fact of the matter is, although life is presumed to subsist while the person manifests behaviors and characteristics inherent in persons – not necessarily different from reflexes and instincts – the totality of evidence regarding the matter should still be considered. In Terri’s case, she had been diagnosed as brain dead by numerous doctors, she had persisted in that condition for several years, no cure was available, and given the state of her brain, she was losing the means for her communication (Wikipedia, 2007). The preponderance of evidence pointed to the conclusion that the presumption of the subsistence of life was overcome in this case. Terri was alive but no longer capable of living. Even the Church could contain such a concept, as in fact it should more easily contain it what with the dogma regarding the separation of the body and of the soul. To couch the argument in the terms of religion, the soul had left Terri’s body and if the body had been left to the natural course of God’s working (and not sustained through artificial, man-made instruments) it would surely have followed the soul. Thus it is seen that despite the heavy publicity this case suffered from and in spite of the ridicule and criticism Michael was subject to, his decision to desist Terri’s sustenance was not a violation of her right to life. Not being so, the act could not have qualified as murder. Finally, being the legal guardian and spiritual half of Terri, Michael had every right to make the decision in this matter.


“Terri Schiavo,” accessed on November 20, 2007.

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