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NZers support right to die – ethics professor

By Marie Sherry

A University of Otago ethics professor believes most New Zealanders agree with the Florida Court’s decision in the “right to die” case of Terri Schiavo.

Terri died on March 31 after a long court battle between her parents and estranged husband Michael Schiavo, who sought legal permission for Terri’s feeding tube to be removed. Terri’s parents felt otherwise and had applied to take guardianship of their daughter from her husband. Their bitter court battles began in 1998.

Professor Grant Gillett, of the University of Otago Medical School, says Terri was deemed to be in a persistent vegetative state in which all parts of the brain responsible for conscious experience had been wiped out.

Terri’s battle began in 1990 when she collapsed at home and fell into a coma. She awoke from the coma several weeks later but was left in what some medical professionals call a “locked in state” with limited abilities to move or communicate.

“The person is left with some relatively primitive reactions. At their best they might register the fact that movement is happening in their room, that people are coming in and out. They probably don’t realise who those people are or that they are people. They just make primitive responses,” Grant says.

“This state can go on for 20-plus years and in this state the person has no hope of recovery. They require full nursing care for all their bodily functions. They usually get multiple chest infections and in the Commonwealth countries it’s usually a case that one of those infections wouldn’t be treated and they would be allowed to die of pneumonia.”

However, some young and fit people do not die of an infection and can go on for many years in this condition, being fed through a feeding tube.

Grant says most ethicists believed you were not doing the patient any favours by keeping them alive in that condition.

“I can’t see why you would ever want to spin out this process. I think even more than the expense (of keeping them alive) is the kind of indignity of this person who has been struck down by a disease that has destroyed their brain.”

He believed most New Zealanders felt the same way he did. There has been one similar case in New Zealand involving the Dunedin High Court, while several cases had occurred in Great Britain and the United States.

“Terri Schiavo is just a case that reached high prominence because of its political expediency at the time,” says Grant.

While Florida is traditionally a conservative state, the high number of elderly people living in Florida meant there was strong feeling in favour of Terri’s right to die.

“I strongly suspect that the court decision was heavily driven by the grey lobby in Florida, which was highly adverse to the possibility that they will be kept alive inappropriately by the US health system,” he says.

“I think there will probably be one high-profile case in New Zealand now that the whole issue has been so much a part of the international news, and then people will see that the issue got talked through to their satisfaction and it will all settle down again.”