Carpenter & Lewis PLLC

Schiavo Case Generates Interest in Living Wills

Florida case remains in discussions about end of life decisions

Do you remember Florida’s Terri Schiavo?  That controversial conflict over whether a lady should be on a feeding tube gripped the minds of many Americans – and it continues to surface in conversations on the subject throughout the country.  Her plight has ignited a debate over what we lawyers call “end of life issues” and specifically an interest in Living Wills and Health Care Powers of Attorney (also known as health care “proxies”).  As you’ve probably heard, Mrs. Schiavo had no written Living Will, and her husband and her parents started fighting over what her final wishes were.  Her husband eventually had her feeding tube removed (the feeding tube was apparently the only thing that kept Mrs. Schiavo alive), but Florida’s legislature intervened to try to force the permanent re-connecting of Schiavo’s feeding tube.  That case went to court over what a “persistent vegetative state” really is.

Whether the legislative intervention was unconstitutional and whether the right to die exists are not issues our law firm wishes to debate.  However, this sad situation has pointed out the need for considering such decisions prior to needing them.  Most of my clients who do wills also want to execute a Living Will to articulate that they do or, more often, do not want artificial life support and the withholding of feeding tubes if they are terminally ill, meaning the ventilator or feeding tube is only prolonging their inevitable death, at great cost to their family (and fairly often with the government picking up the tab for the hospital bill).

Living Wills have long been used and accepted in Tennessee, so steps should be made to avoid this kind of conflict.  A Living Will allows you to specify what kind of life support treatment you do or do not want, as well as specific instructions regarding topics such as organ donation and burial or cremation plans. Everyone should seek advice on these issues to make sure your wishes are known and properly documented in writing.  In addition to a Living Will (which is basically only a written instruction to your doctor about life support), a Health Care Power of Attorney actually names a trusted person to “speak for you” if you are not able to tell the doctors what to do.  It goes beyond the Living Will in many important ways and covers important medical decisions other than just those related to terminal illness.  The individual you name in your Health Care Power of Attorney can consent to treatment or emergency surgery when you are temporarily not able to communicate your wishes. 

For years now, people have expressed that they have seen how heartbreaking this is for the people who cared about Terri Schiavo and don’t want that to happen in their family – so they want to make sure their wishes are known and written down on paper and communicated to their family and doctor before they get sick or in case of incapacitation.  Although my experience has been that most doctors in the Knoxville area will listen to a spouse, if you don’t choose someone to make those decisions for you, the decisions could be left up to the courts to decide.

Experts agree that the important lesson for people to learn from the Schiavo case is to get their families talking about and planning for their own end-of-life care.  This may prompt, in a very positive sense, people to prepare for a possible situation and prevent their families from going through something like this. If Terri Schiavo had properly prepared a clear statement of her wishes, it would take most, if not all, of the debate over legal issues out of this particular case.  Regardless of how an individual feels about the Schiavo case, everybody who hears the story is able to relate and recognize their own need to address these legal issues.

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