Could the tragic death of Terri Schiavo have occurred in Canada? Most certainly. Under the laws of Ontario, a mentally handicapped patient in her condition can also be sentenced to a slow death by starvation and dehydration.
Most Canadians have drawn up “living wills” to prevent some misguided physician from subjecting them to heroic measures that will only prolong the dying process when natural death is imminent. Few people have given much thought to the greater risk that they, like Schiavo, could be legally killed by the withdrawal of a feeding tube at a time when they are neither terminally ill nor close to death.
Granted, many of the facts of Schiavo’s medical condition are in dispute. Renowned neurologists cannot agree on whether or not she had lapsed into an irreversible coma, or so-called persistent vegetative state, prior to the decision to end her life. Nonetheless, it’s evident to all that she had lived for 15 years with a severe mental handicap and probably could have continued to live for many more years, except that she was starved and dehydrated to death.
Nonetheless, many people applaud the killing of Schiavo. Some blithely assume that they, too, would want to be killed, if they were to suffer a debilitating stroke or some other affliction that left them in a prolonged coma. How, though, can these people be so sure? The medical literature is replete with accounts of patients who have recovered from a seemingly irreversible coma.
Jim Derksen is a spokesman for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. As a polio survivor, he has spent years confined to a wheelchair. As a result, he says: “A lot of people feel that my life is not worth living.” Naturally, Derksen disagrees. He observes: “Once disabled, we often change our ideas about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.”
Indeed, the will to live can be remarkably resilient. When Christopher Reeve suffered quadriplegic injuries in a tragic horse-riding accident, even his own mother was initially convinced that he would not want to carry on living as a cripple. She, of course, was wrong.
Suppose, though, that Reeve had become tired of living as a quadriplegic and had begged to have his live-saving ventilator turned off. Would his physicians have readily complied? Surely not. They would at least have summoned in a psychiatrist to try to persuade him to go on living.
Consider, in contrast, the treatment meted out to Schiavo. She allegedly told her husband more than 15 years ago that she would prefer to die rather than live in an irreversible coma. On this flimsy basis, a Florida judge directed the medical staff of a hospice to subject her to a slow and potentially agonizing death by starvation and dehydration.
The Schiavo tragedy is not unique. While no expense is spared to uphold the inalienable right to life of physically handicapped people like Reeve, brain-damaged, but still living, patients like Schiavo are not-infrequently killed by the withdrawal of a feeding tube. Why is that? The answer is clear: people like Schiavo are the victims of a deadly form of judicially sanctioned discrimination on the basis of a severe mental handicap.
What can Canadians do to protect themselves from death by medical starvation and dehydration? Relying on an ordinary living will could be a fatal mistake. Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Ontario, reports that his organization regularly gets calls from people “who have no intention of granting their doctor or family members the right to dehydrate and starve them to death and yet have a living will/power of attorney document that would do just that.”
Consequently, the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Ontario has drawn up a Life Protecting Power of Attorney for Personal Care document. This document is legally binding, easily filled out and, unlike a typical living will, includes a statement that clearly rules out intentional starvation and dehydration for the purpose of ending a person’s life.
Copies of the Life Protecting Power of Attorney can be obtained by calling the London headquarters of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition at (519) 439-3348 or
1-877-439-3348. People who take the time to fill out this form could spare themselves and their families incalculable anguish.