On March 21, 2005, then-President George Bush flew from his vacation home in Texas to Washington, D.C. to sign into law a bill passed by both houses of Congress. The bill concerned one individual, Terri Schiavo, and whether or not to continue extraordinary measures to sustain Terri’s life. It also brought the issue of living wills to the forefront.
Terri, originally from the Philadelphia area, lay in a vegetative state in a medical facility in Florida. This was just one of the final chapters in a legal battle which began in 1998.
Fifteen years earlier, in 1990, Schiavo suffered an injury which cut off the oxygen flow to her brain for an undetermined but critical amount of time. This lack of oxygen caused her irreparable brain damage. Her life was sustained by medical machines, including a feeding tube.
Terri did not have a living will.
In 1998, Schiavo’s husband Michael petitioned the courts of Florida to remove Terri’s feeding tube. Michael said Terri had expressed her wishes to him, prior to her accident, that she did not want to be kept alive by machines. Terri’s parents said that Terri was a devout Roman Catholic who would not wish to violate the Church’s teachings on euthanasia by refusing nutrition and hydration.
After seven years of legal battles which involved The United States Congress, the President, the United States Supreme Court, and every conceivable state and the federal court below, Terri’s feeding tube was removed on March 24, 2005. On March 31, 2005, Terri passed away.
Pennsylvania law allows individuals a number of options concerning the end of life decisions. A Living Will or Advance Health Care Directive is the best way to have your wishes fulfilled if you cannot make that decision for yourself.
You have the right to decide the type of health care you want. Should you become unable to understand, make, or communicate decisions about medical care, your wishes for medical treatment are most likely to be followed if you express those wishes in advance by:
- naming a health care agent to decide treatment for you; and
- giving health care treatment instructions to your health care agent or health care provider.
An advance health care directive is a written set of instructions expressing your wishes for medical treatment. It may contain a health care power of attorney, where you name a person called a “health care agent” to decide treatment for you, and living wills, where you tell your health care agent and health care providers your choices regarding the initiation, continuation, withholding, or withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment and other specific instructions.
Consulting with an attorney is the first step in making this all-important decision. An attorney can advise you on the importance and the specifics of preparing and executing your own living will.