Living Wills: The Curious Case of Terri Schiavo
In March 2005, the nation was captivated by the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who had been living in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for 15 years, surviving only because a feeding tube was providing her with sustenance. Doctors had concluded that her higher brain functions had ceased and that she had no hope of recovery, and her husband Michael Schiavo decided to remove the feeding tube and end her life. Her parents fought this decision for years, and the legal firestorm that ensued eventually drew in politicians on the state and national level, and eventually an unsuccessful petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ms. Schiavo finally died, but not after becoming a cause celebre for both sides of the “right to die” issue.
At the core of the debate was whether or not Terri had definitively given Michael consent to end all extraordinary means to prolong her life — colloquially, “pulling the plug.” Michael had repeatedly insisted — and state courts agreed — that he had discussed with his wife that she did not want to continue living under extraordinary means, and that he had oral consent to end her life if the situation arose. However, she did not write down her intentions, leaving it to a “he said, she said” battle that would rage for years. In the end, much heartbreak and hardship could have been avoided if Terri had what has become known as a “living will,” a legally binding document that you can use to determine end-of-life issues should you become permanently incapacitated. And, as soon as this case finally ended, I drafted my own living will and distributed it to my loved ones.
The living will must be properly witnessed to be effective (in Virginia, one person must witness your signature; in DC, you need two witnesses), and may contain additional provisions for organ donation and power of attorney for health care. If nothing else, it will provide peace of mind that if the unthinkable happens, your family and friends will not have to deal with unnecessary heartbreak and a potentially emotionally charged fight over what to do.
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