Sunday, March 20, 2005
A search brought up this site called Abstract Appeal which follows items of interest in Florida law. The sitekeeper, one Matt Conigliaro, seems to have done a fairly good job of tracking the legal issues and the presented facts of this case. As he comments, it's a sad case but not incomprehensible. He does not know any of the principals personally and apparently both sides have called him biased at various times, a perverse recommendation in my book. This is from his page of information on this case. If you are looking for a relatively dispassionate assessment of the situation, his page is a good place to go. All emphasis is mine.
This is a very tough situation for all involved -- and mind you I'm not at all involved. I just discuss the case as part of what seems to be my running commentary on Florida law.
I appreciate that you wish to understand more. Ultimately, Terri's case is understandable, though painfully so. If you take away the "evil" allegations that have been leveled against everyone, it's easy to see what you're left with.
You're left with a woman who suffered a heart attack 15 years ago, who essentially died but was resuscitated, though not entirely. Her brain had suffered enormous damage from the heart attack. As time passed, her brain further deteriorated -- to the point where much if not most of her cerebral cortex (the portion of the brain that controls conscious thought, among other things) was literally gone, replaced by spinal fluid. Doctors hired by Terri's husband say the deterioration of Terri's brain left her without thoughts or feelings, that the damage is irreversible, and that Terri's life-like appearance is merely the result of brain stem activity -- basically involuntary reflexes we all have. An independent doctor hired by the court reached the same conclusions. Doctors hired by Terri's parents did not dispute the physical damage done to Terri, but they claim there are new therapies that could improve her condition. In two separate trials, the trial court found such claims of potential improvement to be without merit. Terri's body continues to function without her cerebral cortex. She is sustained by a feeding tube surgically inserted into her stomach. She cannot eat through her mouth without a strong likelihood of choking to death.
You're left with a husband who lived with his in-laws following Terri's heart attack, who apparently provided care and therapy for years but who later came to believe Terri would never recover. He believes she would not have wanted to be kept alive in this brain-degenerated condition by a surgically implanted tube. He is apparently willing to continue his fight to achieve what he believes Terri would want despite ridicule, hatred, expense, and threats.
You're left with parents who were once allied with Terri's husband in an effort to care for Terri and restore her but, unlike Terri's husband, they never lost hope. They believe Terri reacts to them and has conscious thoughts. They believe Terri would not want, and does not want, her feeding tube removed, and that some cognitive function could be restored through new therapies. Terri's parents are willing to continue their fight to achieve what they believe Terri would want despite ridicule, hatred, expense, and threats.
You're left with judges who have been placed in the utterly thankless position of applying Florida law to this impassioned situation. Florida law calls for the trial court to determine what Terri would chose to do in this situation, and after a trial hard fought by Terri's husband and her family, where each side was given the opportunity to present its best case about what Terri would do, the court determined the evidence was clear and convincing that Terri would chose not to continue living by the affirmative intervention of modern medicine -- that she would chose to have her feeding tube disconnected. In a second trial, brought about by Terri's family's claims new therapies could restore her and that the existence of such a therapy would make her "change her mind," the trial court again heard evidence from all sides and determined that no new therapy presented any reasonable chance of restoring Terri's brain function. The propriety of these decisions -- from the sufficiency of the evidence to the appropriateness of the procedures used -- has been unanimously upheld on appeal each time.
You're left with a public that is much confused. Some see video clips of Terri moving, appearing to make eye contact, and making sounds, and they assume such are the product of conscious thought -- that Terri's "in there." Some believe Terri's husband has been motivated by money. Some believe that no heart attack occurred -- instead, Terri's husband beat her nearly to death and has been trying to end her life ever since. Some believe he is a bad person because he has taken up with another woman and has children with her. Some believe Florida's judiciary is corrupt or inept, to the point where death threats have been made against the trial judge. Some are sad that families would fight like this. Some believe that removing Terri's feeding tube would cause her pain and is inhumane (I'm no doctor, but the medical information I've seen on this subject uniformly says the opposite.) Some are disappointed that the law does not allow someone in Terri's condition to be kept alive perpetually if a family member is willing to care for him or her. Some believe no life should be permitted to reach an unnecessary end unless irrefutable proof, or at least written proof, shows the person wanted things that way.