JLE Portfolio: Reflections on End of Life Decisions

[1] The long tragic case of Terri Shiavo recently produced an outpouring of response throughout the United States. Her death was reported on April 1, 2005, nearly two weeks after life support was removed in accord with a court order. Terri Shiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990 when she collapsed at home after suffering a heart attack. She was eventually deemed by the Florida courts to be in a “persistently vegetative state.” A long legal battle between her husband and legal guardian -who believed that she would not have wanted to live in her condition-and her parents began in 1998 in the Florida state courts when he first asked the court for permission to remove her life support. Her parents believed that she might improve with therapy and petitioned the courts not to order her food and hydration removed. Her case was reviewed by medical ethics teams and ethics committees several times. Her husband eventually prevailed in Florida state courts. Legal proceedings finally ended up in Federal Courts after President George W. Bush signed into law legislation passed by Congress which gave her parents access to Federal courts. The Federal courts declined to order reinsertion of life support after the Florida courts refused to do so. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to reverse lower court rulings.

[2] We present two thoughtful and contrasting Lutheran comments on the circumstances surrounding her recent death for reflection and deliberation by JLE readers about the end-of-life matters raised by her case. William Rodriguez argues from Stanley Hauerwas’ vision of the church as a community of character that her family should have been allowed to care for her indefinitely and that life support should not have been withdrawn. ELCA Bishop Edward Benoway wrote a pastoral letter to members of his Florida-Bahamas Synod based on the ELCA “Message on End of Life Decisions” and said that withdrawing life support may be morally responsible when such treatment “will not lead to improved health, and is preventing natural death from occurring. . . .”

[3] JLE readers will find the full text of the Message on End of Life Decisions at http://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Messages/End-of-Life-Decisions

JLE Portfolio: Reflections on End of Life Decisions

A Community of Character at the Intersections of Life and Death
by William Rodriguez

Bishop’s Pastoral Letter on End of Life Decisions
by Bishop Edward R. Benoway

Ronald W. Duty

Ronald W. Duty is the former Assistant Director for Studies in Church in Society at the ELCA, and is now a private scholar.