There are, perhaps, no issues that are quite as polarizing for human beings as those matters concerning the right to life, on the one hand, and the right to die, on the other. For people who come from religious traditions that convey clear beliefs about these issues, the answer to the question, “Do people have a right to die?” elicits an automatic response: God makes life, and He is the only entity that can decide when life should be terminated. While such a belief is respectable in some sectors of American society, it suggests a facile resolution to medical dilemmas that are anything but easy. In short, the religious answer for right to die issues is not favorable to the cause. The right to live and the right to die are not, as George suggests, solely rooted in the “sweeping belief in the value of autonomy as a core right of persons” (2005). As the recent case of Terri Schiavo indicated, issues related to autonomy and self-determination are often eclipsed by complex medical questions that are not answered easily. Schiavo’s condition provides an interesting case for the study of the right to die debate, and suggests that individuals should have the right to die when their circumstances and conditions clearly suggest that there is little or no likelihood for their recovery.
In 1990, Terri Schiavo collapsed in her home and experienced cardiac and respiratory arrest that caused massive brain damage and provided doctors with the clinical symptoms that were necessary to diagnose Schiavo as being in a persistent vegetative state (Stokes Paulsen 2005). Schiavo was kept alive for 15 years on feeding tubes, ventilators, and other medical machinery that performed her bodily functions, such as breathing and eating, for her, and according to physicians, there was “no doubt” that Terri Schiavo would have “continued to live indefinitely in her deeply disabled condition” (Stokes Paulsen 2005). In her state, Schiavo was unable to communicate with or understand others; in short, she no longer possessed any of the biological, psychological, or social characteristics that generally define our lives as human beings. Schiavo’s husband was insistent that his wife would not have wanted to continue existing in a vegetative state, while her parents were equally insistent that their daughter would not want to die, especially at the hands of people making the decision of life or death for her. While the family members’ debate unfolded over more than seven years of legal battles, a Florida court decided in 2005 that Schiavo’s life would be terminated (Stokes Paulsen 2005).
As Hillyard and Dombrink observe, “legal activities concerning hastened death have been one way Americans have defined their own cultural commitments” (2001), and Schiavo’s parents and husband certainly expressed and defined their own commitments as this case was heard and resolved. Yet attitudes about the right to die are typically clouded by strong emotions, often influenced significantly by religious beliefs, which tend to preclude a thoughtful and balanced analysis of the main issues of the right to die, or “death with dignity” movement (Hillyard and Dombrink 2001). First, the right to die should not be confused with an act of gratuitous suicide. Rather, doctor-assisted suicide or euthanasia should only be considered as a viable alternative when the person who is suffering from a terminal illness considers that illness to be so painful and so compromising of one’s quality of life that it becomes a burden that is a “fate worse than death” (Hillyard & Dombrink 2001).
One of the complicating factors in the case of Schiavo, and the fact that made the decision to euthanize her so agonizing for all of the individuals involved, was that Schiavo had never articulated—at least not on paper—what her wishes were should such a malady befall her. Nonetheless, there are documents that are used for exactly this purpose. As Zucker points out, advance directives, also known as living wills, are important documents that all people should consider completing so that their wishes to live or die in an extreme situation can be made known, not only to their loved ones, but also to the legal and medical entities that will be in charge of carrying out the decisions that will either continue or cut off life (Zucker 71).