Nancy Beth Cruzan, a 33-year-old Missouri woman reported to be in a coma since a 1983 car accident, died December 26, 1990, in Mount Vernon, Missouri, 12 days after the liquid diet fed to her through a stomach tube was stopped.

Pro-life activists who opposed this action maintained that Miss Cruzan was not in a coma. She was not terminally ill, they told The Interim. She could hear and see. Her brain is functioning. She cried and laughed. She was not in a vegetative state. She showed emotions in response to people coming and going.

Nancy’s death by starvation, they stated, is an ominous sign for the future of U.S. health care. It is increasingly adopting the view that it is legitimate to put an end to non-productive human lives.

In St. Louis, one protester began a fast on December 17, 1990; in Mount Vernon, New York some 20 protesters prayed and sang. Others sang Christmas carols outside the Missouri State Rehabilitation Centre. Protesters were arrested when they attempted to visit her.

In Toronto, Campaign Life Coalition organized an impromptu two-hour picked outside the U.S. Consulate December 26 to draw attention to the incident.

Stated Campaign Life Coalition national President, Jim Hughes: “The dam has broken and the clamour for legally assisted suicide will follow shortly.”

Recent history

Miss Cruzan’s feeding tube was removed December 14 under Judge Charles Teel’s court order at her parents’ request.

In June 1990, by a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against withdrawing food and water from Cruzan, who, to use the court’s words, was in “what is commonly referred to as a persistent vegetative state: generally, a condition in which a person exhibits motor reflexes but evinces no indications of significant cognitive function.”

The Court ruled that a state’s interest in preserving life may supersede the family’s wishes. The high court held that there was no clear proof Cruzan would have wanted the nutrition and hydration stopped.

The Cruzans had said their daughter, who was left in what doctors called an irreversible vegetative state, would not want to continue living.

“Like a Vegetable”

In November 1990 the case was re-opened. Miss Cruzan’s court-appointed guardian, Thad McCanse, presented three new witnesses who testified that she told them more than 10 years ago she would not want to live “like a vegetable” on medical technology.

In a December 20 statement, six days before Miss Cruzan’s death, Missouri’s bishops commented on the case in the light of Roman Catholic teaching:

“There should be a presumption in favour of life in controverted cases, and the decision to refuse or terminate extraordinary treatment should be taken with great deliberation.”  The bishops added, “Decisions like this are usually best left to the patient, his or her family and the doctor, and should be made in light of moral principle.”

The bishops outlined factors entering into such a decision, including the patient’s interests, the family’s emotions, the rights of health-care providers, society’s common good and God’s will.

The issue

On December 14, immediately after the ruling, Miss Cruzan’s father, Joe, said, “Because of Nancy, I suspect hundreds of thousands of people can rest free, knowing that when death beckons they can met it face to face with dignity, free from the fear of unwanted and useless medical treatment.”

“She remained peaceful throughout and showed no sign of discomfort or distress in any way. Knowing Nancy as only a family can, there remains no question that we made the choice she would want,” said her parents after her death on December 26.

Leaders of right-to-life groups who had argued that Miss Cruzan must not be allowed to die were swift to react.

“In the season of home, Nancy Cruzsan’s death by starvation and dehydration diminishes hope for thousands of medically dependent people nation-wide,” said Dr. David O’Steen, executive director of the National right to Life Committee. “This is a tragedy not only for Nancy Cruzan, but also for the nation.”

“Prior to the withdrawal of food and water, Nancy Cruzan was not terminally ill, she was not in a coma, nor was she in pain,” added Dr. O’Steen. “Because of Nancy’s death, hundreds of thousands of severely disabled people who also need assistance to eat are new at risk for death by starvation.”

The Rev. Joseph Foreman of Atlanta, a founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, called Cruzan’s death a tragedy with dangerous implications.

“I think in the next few years you will see an entire industry spring up around putting people to death who family, friends, and so forth have deemed to be no longer of use to anybody,” Foreman said.

“There will be wings of hospitals devoted to putting people to death like this.”

Other pro-lifers indicated they feared an American version of the Nazi ‘euthansia’ campaign during the late thirties and early forties. The Nazi’s put to death at least 250,000 physically or mentally disabled Germans as ‘useless eaters’, not up to par to their standards for ‘quality of life’.

Today, the pro-euthanasia movement claims that suicide or ‘mercy-killing’—like the killing of the unborn by means of abortion—should be based on the ‘right to privacy.’  Their spokesman immediately seized the opportunity to claim the court ruling as a decision in their favour.

Stated Doron Weber from New York: “There is a constitutional basis for the right to refuse treatment. We feel that Nancy Cruzan has made legal history. Her dying is an entirely private matter.”

With files from Origins, Jan. 10, 1991; The Wanderer, Dec. 27 and Jan. 3, 1991; the Times Transcript, Dec. 22; Globe and Mail, Dec. 27, 1990.

The following is the text of the resolution passed at the International Congress of the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human life which took place in Rome December 1 to 3, 1989. (The Federation has almost 300,000 members in 59 countries).

“In every case of terminal illness, it is cruel and anti-medical practice to withdraw nutrition and hydration and thus to cause the patient to die of hunger and thirst, which can only increase his suffering. Nutrition and hydration are a basic life-maintaining need even if administered intravenously or by gastric tube.