Life and justice

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 28, 2005

It was March 23, 1775 when Patrick Henry articulated the famous words, &uot;Give me liberty or give me death.&uot;

Though the battle cries of the freedom fighters have long since faded, almost exactly 230 years later a new generation may soon be silently screaming the same expression from within mute prisons of disabled bodies.

In light of the recent Supreme Court decision to reject yet another appeal from Terri Schiavo’s parents to have their brain damaged daughter’s feeding tube reinserted, the future of disabled Americans looks anything but bleak.

With the 2000 Census citing 1,540,365 people five years old and older as being disabled and 6,712 of those residing in Hertford County, I do wonder how many of our friends and family members could be affected as a result of these rulings.

Just as the Lawrence v. Texas ruling that overturned the illegality of sodomy set the stage for arguments favoring homosexual marriage in Massachusetts, so too could the rulings from the Schiavo case set a precedent for the treatment of those with disabilities.

Despite the debate about her condition, Schiavo is not in a &uot;permanent vegetative state&uot; according to Florida Statue 765.101 Ch0765-Section 101.

In an article found on Family Research Council, Florida’s statute defines a &uot;persistent vegetative state&uot; as &uot;a permanent and irreversible condition of unconsciousness in which there is: (a) the absence of voluntary action or cognitive behavior of ANY kind and (b) an inability to communicate or interact purposefully with the environment,&uot; certainly not a definition that would describe Terri Schiavo.

Unfortunately, many who view the Schiavo case from a &uot;right to die&uot; perspective fail to realize the long-term implications those rulings will have on the people who possess similar disabling characteristics.

Lawyers know, when presenting information before the courts for a ruling on a matter, that their case is strengthened if they can effectively draw parallels to previous rulings, otherwise known as the process of employing case law.

Case law, which is the documentation of decrees established by judicial decision in cases, is like the measuring stick of the courts that helps them to determine what should be done with a particular case based on what has previously been done.

That is why there is so much talk about the &uot;right to die.&uot;

In 1985, 21-year-old Karen Ann Quinlan suffered a similar fate when she collapsed after combining too much alcohol, aspirin and Valium at a party, causing damage to her brain, which subsequently caused her to lapse into a &uot;persistent vegetative state&uot; with no hope of recovery.

As Quinlan’s condition worsened, her parents fought to have her taken off life support (a respirator), but the courts denied them the right to remove her from the respirator, deeming her to be alive both legally and medically.

Eventually, after appealing to the Supreme Court, the judge finally ruled in favor of Quinlan’s parents request, allowing them to discontinue the use of artificial means to keep her alive.

However, although Quinlan’s case differs from Schiavo’s in that she was in a coma and completely unresponsive, Quinlan was still given nutrients and antibiotics to help her fight off infections.

So, how is it that the courts would deny food and water to a woman who is awake and alert and who appears to have at least minimal understanding and interaction with members of her family?

One would think that such treatment would be considered cruel and unusual punishment, wouldn’t they? Especially when learning of how Quinlan’s father argued exactly that point with regard to keeping his daughter alive through extraordinary means.

There is a marked difference between keeping someone’s physical body alive through artificial means by use of machinery and providing sustenance through food and water to someone whose body is healthy and functioning on its own.

If Terri Schiavo truly had no cognitive ability, she would not be able to respond to someone asking her to open her eyes, turn her head to acknowledge her mother’s presence or try and repeat back to her mother the words, &uot;I love you.&uot;

I doubt anyone would choose to live with the kind of handicaps she is faced with on a daily basis, but neither would we want to be forced to die through starvation and dehydration.

She is more than just a body and she should not be denied her right to life, and liberty because it interferes with someone else’s happiness. She has the right to be heard; the right to a trial by jury and the right to have a lawyer represent her interests. Though others may not see the issue as black and white, one thing is for certain; this case has the potential to spur legislation that could spell the end for many of our disabled family members and friends and perhaps even add a layer of protection for those who may otherwise have been guilty of murder.