Terri Schiavo: What You Should Know About Living Wills?

Terri Schiavo: What You Should Know About Living Wills?

by James Peters, Esq., December 2009

It began like most marriages: in happiness, bliss, and love. November 10, 1984 marked the gathering of friends and the marriage of Terri Schindler and Michael Schiavo. After just six years of marriage, and still very much in love, their lives changed forever. At age 27, Terri suffered a heart attack. Michael called 9-1-1, and his wife was rushed to the hospital. She never regained consciousness.

In May 1998, eight years after his wife lost consciousness, Michael petitioned Florida's guardianship court. Why? To terminate life-prolonging procedures. He asked the court to let her die. Terri's brain had deteriorated. Any hopes for recovery, short of a true miracle, were gone. Michael believed Terri would choose to die if she could decide for herself. She wouldn't want to be kept alive artificially. The trial court determined Terri was in a persistent vegetative state and that Michael was right. Terri's parents disagreed and challenged the decision, kicking off court proceedings that continue to this day. On October 15, 2001, after the Florida Supreme Court denied the last in a string of appeals, Terri's nutrition and hydration tube were to be removed.

The finality of this decision was short-lived. Six days later, Terri's Law was enacted. It provided the governor with a one-time stay to prevent withholding a patient's nutrition and hydration. Governor Jeb Bush signed the act into law and ordered Terri's feeding tube reinserted. On the same day, Michael Schiavo challenged the constitutionality of Terri's Law.

Now, three years later, Terri's fate is one step closer to being decided. In September 2004, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision ruling that "Terri's Law" was unconstitutional and the earlier decision to remove life support was reaffirmed. Governor Bush's appeal followed shortly thereafter.

This long legal battle between Terri's husband, her parents and the state of Florida can teach us one important lesson: make your wishes known regarding health care. Florida law provides for the creation of living wills (or advance directives). These legal documents allow you to state you don't want artificial life support in case of incapacitation. Although Michael has testified that Terri told him she wouldn't want life support, her parents dispute this claim. Unfortunately, nothing in writing exists to document Terri's true wishes. Without a living will, Michael has been forced to place this difficult decision in the hands of the court. The result? Years of litigation.

If Terri had drafted a living will, her wishes would have been upheld without years of fighting between the people who love her. Perhaps she really would have desired treatment in certain situations, such as if there was a chance for full recovery. In other situations, Terri may have found such treatment undesirable because it would only prolong the process of dying. A living will provides that kind of flexibility.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, the courts will have the final say over her fate. This doesn't have to be the case. A living will ensures others will know your wishes, and they'll be documented. If there is one element of good that comes from the fight over Terri's life, it may be that more people take advantage of their right to decide.