Florida Failed to Defend the Life of Terri Schiavo

Bioethicist Comments on State Supreme Court’s Ruling

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ROME/TALLAHASSEE, Florida, SEPT. 24, 2004 (Zenit.org).- A bioethicist expressed his concern over the failure of the Florida State Supreme Court to defend the life of Terri Schiavo in face of her husband’s insistence that she be allowed to die.

The Court ruled on Thursday that the «Terri Law», signed by Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush, is unconstitutional and that the governor should not have been given the power to have the feeding tube reinserted, against the wishes of the brain-damaged woman’s husband. Terri Shiavo has been unconscious for the past 14 years.

The Court heard the appeal of Michael Schiavo, the patient’s husband, and ruled that the law, approved by the Florida State Legislature and in force for only 15 days, is unconstitutional.

The seven judges of the State Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the «Terri Law,» promulgated in October of 2003, violated the separation of the powers between the judicial, legislative and executive branch, and that the Florida Legislature improperly delegated power to the governor.

«We recognize that the tragic circumstances underlying this case make it difficult to put emotions aside and focus solely on the legal issue presented,» wrote Chief Justice Barbara Pariente, who authored the opinion.

«We are not insensitive to the struggle that all members of Theresa’s family have endured since she fell unconscious in 1990. However, we are a nation of laws and we must govern our decisions by the rule of law and not by our own emotions,» she continued.

«Our hearts can fully comprehend the grief so fully demonstrated by Theresa’s family members on this record,» the ruling said. «But our hearts are not the law. What is in the Constitution always must prevail over emotions. Our oaths as judges require that this principle is our polestar, and it alone.»

Terri Schiavo, 40, suffered severe brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped due to an eating problem. Although she can breathe on her own, she needs a feeding tube to survive. Her husband argues that she would not have wished to be kept alive in this way and wants the tube to be removed and that she be allowed to die.

However, the patient’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, rejected the proposal and alleged that their daughter might recover her faculties.

“I cannot go into the technical aspects of the ruling. I don’t know if it is correct from the strictly technical-juridical point of view. However, it is very sad and worrying that a defenseless person’s death can be caused by a technical problem and that the juridical system is unable to protect Terri Schiavo’s life,» said Father Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the Faculty of Bioethics of Rome’s Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum.

«Assuming that the ruling is technically correct, I think that the position presented by Judge Barbara Pariente, is gravely inexact: the problem does not lie in choosing between ‘emotions and rules,’ but between defense of a human life and the rules,» the Legionary of Christ said in statements to ZENIT.

«Obviously the written rules cannot address each and all of the concrete cases that can arise. Interpretation of the rules not only is necessary but inevitable,» added the expert, who has represented the Catholic Church in questions of bioethics at UNESCO.

«And, in the case of a serious emergency, as was Mrs. Schiavo’s situation when ‘Terri’s Law’ was promulgated, one would have to be able to interpret and apply the rules in favor of the protection of life, perhaps with an all together exceptional and temporal legal measure (so that it could not be used abusively as a precedent to alter the established juridical and constitutional order).»

«When an emergency arises and the written rules are not adequate to protect someone who is in danger of death, are we not able to adapt the rules or interpret them keeping the special situation in mind, or to make an exception for the good of the person?» Father Miranda asked.

«What will happen when a terrorist threatens someone’s life and the rules do not allow his arrest?» he continued.

“I am assailed by a suspicion: the sad Schiavo case has been extended for a very long time, without the lawmakers and judges being able to definitively guarantee the protection of life.»

«Might it not be the case, in fact, that some would prefer to see her dead?» he asked.

«King Solomon knew who the real mother of the child was when he saw that one of the women accepted his being cut in half, while the mother cried out that she preferred that he be given alive to the other woman,» Father Miranda added.

«Terri’s husband pursues obsessively his wife’s death (alleging, naturally, that he does so out of compassion for her). Terry’s parents are fighting to save her life. If only our judges would learn something of the wisdom of Solomon,» he concluded.

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