Profs clash over whether Fla. woman should live

Terri Schiavo’s fate has become a debate over when life should be ended or prolonged.

Amy Horst

University professors are taking sides in the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who earned national attention when the governor ordered she be kept alive despite her husband’s wishes.

University neurology professor Ron Cranford traveled to Florida in summer 2002 to examine Schiavo and later testified in court that she should be allowed to die.

That led University philosophy professor John Dolan to call Cranford and others who share his view “professional death advocates.”

Schiavo, 39, suffered severe brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped. Since then she has been in a vegetative state, kept alive by a feeding tube in her abdomen.

Her case became well known when her husband said he wanted to take her off the feeding tube and her family disagreed.

The ensuing 13-year battle over her fate has drawn the attention of groups that oppose abortion, disability groups and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who ordered her tube reinserted last week after a Florida court ordered it taken out.

Cranford examined Schiavo at the request of her husband’s attorney and has been outspoken on his views of the case ever since.

When Cranford examined her, he looked at the results of brain tests and did a clinical exam, which showed that Schiavo cannot follow objects or people with her eyes. Cranford said that is a classic sign of a vegetative state.

Cranford decided after examining Schiavo that it was wrong to keep her alive through the tube that provides her with hydration and nutrients because, he said, she has no hope of recovery.

“For Terri’s condition, due to lack of oxygen in the brain, the chance of any significant recovery after three months is unheard of,” Cranford said. “It couldn’t be any worse than it is.”

Dolan, however, said he believes ending Schiavo’s life would be wrong and issued a public statement in October 2002 in support of keeping her alive. That statement is now on the Schiavo family’s Web site.

Dolan said the medical field increasingly places more value on the lives of healthy people.

He said the method by which Schiavo would die – dehydration after removal of her tube – would be inhumane, regardless of whether she told her husband she would want to die in such a situation.

“I’m sure she didn’t say, ‘Michael, please arrange to have my food and water cut off,’ ” Dolan said. “You can’t legally kill cats and dogs that way.”

He said because no one really knows what Schiavo would have wanted, it is inappropriate to remove the tube.

“When you have doubts in these cases, always err on the side of life,” Dolan said.

University law professor Susan Wolf, director of the University’s Joint Degree Program in Law, Health and the Life Sciences, said because Schiavo’s husband is her legal guardian, he has the final say in what happens to her.

Dianne Bartels, associate director for the University’s Center for Bioethics, said Schiavo’s case stresses why people should tell their family members what they would want in such a situation.

“I, for one, have it explicitly stated in my living will that I don’t believe that a life where I’m unable to participate actively and communicate with my loved ones would be a life I would want continued,” Bartels said.