EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the April 25, 2005, issue of National Review.
You could be forgiven for forgetting, during the recent drama about Terri Schiavo, that assisted suicide is illegal in Florida — as it is in every state but Oregon. Commentators on the Schiavo case discussed whether a life like the one she had over the last 15 years is worth living or whether bringing about her death would be the right thing to do. They asked what her preferences were, or would be now. They debated whether Florida law was wise to give her husband Michael Schiavo the right to make the life-or-death decision.
But Florida law doesn’t recognize Mrs. Schiavo’s right to kill herself, let alone her husband’s right to make that choice for her. If she had (miraculously) recovered enough faculties to have been able to beg a physician to give her a lethal injection, and had done so, her wish could not legally have been granted. If she had recovered her faculties and then refused to eat or drink, the response of her caregivers would almost certainly have been to try to talk her into changing her mind.
Florida law allows patients to turn down medical treatments and, when they cannot make medical decisions, designates others to decide for them. Turning down treatment can, of course, cause the patient to die. The decision to turn down treatment may even be made with the precise intention of causing death, as was the case with Michael Schiavo’s decision.
Yet Florida does not allow assisted suicide. Why does the state allow patients to die the potentially agonizing death of starvation but not receive a quick, painless lethal injection? That question was frequently asked, for various polemical purposes, during the Schiavo controversy.
One possible answer to the question is that the law is simply inconsistent. Floridians, like most people, have muddled views on medical ethics. For some emotional or esthetic reason, they prefer that death be accomplished by starvation. Perhaps starvation preserves the illusion that the patient is merely being “allowed to die,” while a lethal injection would dispel it…
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