Live Dying or Die Trying?

Congratulations! You have just turned 21!! With all that saved money from your summer jobs, you have decided to purchase a Harley Davidson. You’re cruising down the highway, maybe even speeding, when BOOM you crash. You are rushed into the intensive care unit and you have suffered massive brain damage as a result of lack of oxygen. You are in a coma for two months when you are then, diagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state; however, some neurologists diagnose you as minimally conscious. Your nurses also report that you, with difficulty, say “help me” and “mom.” Unfortunately, you remain this way for the next fifteen years. Your husband argues that you would not want to live this way, and would rather have someone put a stop to your suffering. Your parents however, argue that you are a devout Roman Catholic and do not believe in euthanasia; therefore, you would want to be kept alive. However, no official records exist for either of their arguments. Now, what do you think—should euthanasia, assisted suicide, be allowed?

Terri Schiavo’s family’s argument

Does this case sound familiar? You are currently reading the case of Terri Schiavo; a high-profile case that captivated the nation in 2005. Terri Schiavo was 26 years old when, for undetermined reasons, she collapsed and suffered severe brain damage as a result of lack of oxygen. After two months in a coma, she was diagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, was appointed as her plenary guardian by the courts. Her husband testified that Terri would support euthanasia in the event of such a disability.   The court supported his testimony and ordered that Terri’s feeding tube be removed. Her family appealed the case, but they were ultimately denied. The case was heard over 20 times in Florida courts but on all occasions, it was ruled that Terri’s fate was in control of her husband, respecting the sanctity of their marriage. On March 18, 2005, Terri’s gastric feeding tube was removed and she died from severe dehydration on March 31st, 2005.

Michael Schiavo’s argument

Let’s say John Stuart Mill was the court-appointed judge for the case, how would he have ruled? He would have agreed to remove Terri’s gastric feeding tube for two reasons. Firstly, he would argue that the moral worth of any person’s action is determined by the pursuit of happiness. People should base their actions on what ultimately, will cause them the greatest amount of happiness. Thus if euthanasia will increase an individual’s happiness, then to allow for euthanasia would be the morally correct decision. Additionally, Mill’s harm principle would come into play. In his philosophical work On Liberty, Mill argued that, “”The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Therefore, decisions over one’s body are ought to be made by the individual himself, and not by any other authority. Thereby, if Terri wanted to be euthanized, the government should not interfere with her desire. Furthermore, since Terri’s husband was the plenary guardian over her body, if he testified that Terri would have want to be euthanized, then this decision must be respected.

Given the details of the case, if you were the judge, what decision would you have made?

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4 thoughts on “Live Dying or Die Trying?

  1. This is a very interesting argument and I agree, believing that Mill would be for euthanization. However I don’t think he would approve of the method employed. Removing the feeding tube has a high probability of harm, especially if she’s partially responsive. Dying of dehydration over of period of almost two weeks seem inhumain and harmful to her individual liberty, especially since it is hard for us to determine if she felt any pain or mental anguish during the process. Also, as she was slowly dying she was still occupying hospital space and medical personnels’ time. So, while I agree Mill would approve of the decision, I feel that the means would not be justified.

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  2. This is a great connection between the antiquated ideals of John Stuart Mill and the current ethical debates that are being highly publicized today. This case has been all over the news, and it is interesting to see it interpreted in this way. I definitely agree that John Stuart Mill could have supported this physician assisted suicide in the way that he would have viewed it as Terri’s right to pursue her own happiness. The harm principle here is a little less applicable. For example, even though the harm principle gives one the right to do any action that can only harm themselves, one must consider the emotional harm her death procures for her family, whom fought tirelessly against her euthanasia. Thus, I think Mill would have supported her decision, but that not all of his philosophical ideas would have reinforced physician assisted suicide.

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  3. I agree with your assertion that Mill would support the decision that brought about the greatest amount of happiness to the individual involved. However, you state that euthanasia appeared to be that decision, though there is no concrete evidence that Terri, the person in the comatose state, clearly desired that end. I am not stating which decision is most agreeable (as it is unclear), but this reason is what makes the topic of euthanasia so complicated.

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  4. I agree with the most recent comment stating that Mill would agree with euthanization but not with just removing the feeding tube. For someone who is still partially conscious that would be a very slow and painful death. If the end result was the person dying anyway why not make it swift and painless?

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