Politics & Policy

Death by Court Order

What judges have wrought.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the April 25, 2005, issue of National Review.

T

he death certificate for Theresa Marie Schiavo should record that she was killed by court order. The state courts flagrantly violated the democratically enacted laws of Florida–laws expressly intended to protect the incapacitated and vulnerable whenever there is doubt about their true condition or their desire to live. When the Congress and the president of the United States took extraordinary steps at the end to have the case reviewed, the federal courts haughtily ignored them.

The courts’ overreaching began in 1990, the very year Terri Schiavo, then 26, was stricken. The Supreme Court that year decided the Cruzan case, which concerned another woman’s tragedy. Here, the Court held both that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed a right to decline medical treatment, and that medical treatment included basic sustenance. Further, the Court held that a surrogate could exercise this right for people who (a) were in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) and (b) had convincingly expressed a desire not to be sustained if they ever reached that state.

Both tests were dangerously imprecise. PVS combines the total loss of higher cognitive functions with the persistence of rudimentary reflex responses. A person who is minimally conscious and responsive to stimuli is not in a PVS. Because the condition is so difficult to get a precise fix on, some experts peg its misdiagnosis rate as nearing one out of every two cases. The Court’s standard for intent, meanwhile, did not require a reliable piece of writing, such as an authenticated will. Hearsay would do the trick. . .

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