Is Wisconsin teen's decision to die a turning point?

USA Today

September 8, 2016

By Greg Toppo

More than a decade ago, Americans took sides in a bitter, faith-tinged battle over the right to die. We watched as Terry Schiavo’s family fought over what they believed were the Florida woman’s wishes.

As the world watches what could be the final days of Jerika Bolen, a Wisconsin teenager who has decided to stop medical treatment for an incurable disease, a different drama is unfolding: The kid just threw herself a goodbye party — and many, many people are cheering.

Have we turned a corner on this fraught issue over the past 11 years?

Medical ethicists say: Not so fast.

As painful as Jerika’s case is, hers is not like Terry Schiavo’s, whose medical drama dragged on for years, ensnaring lawmakers right up to President George W. Bush, said Arthur Caplan, head of the division of bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

The case of Schiavo, a Florida woman whose heart stopped in 1990, and who lay in a “persistent vegetative” state until her death in 2005, divided the USA and hardened many Americans’ positions on the “right to death,” as well as religious objections to physician-assisted suicide.

At the time she was hospitalized, Schiavo, 26, left no written instructions in the event she became disabled. Her husband, Michael, said she never would have wanted to be kept alive in that state, which court-appointed doctors said held no hope of recovery. But Schiavo’s parents maintained she would benefit from rehabilitation. A long fight followed — President Bush even signed a bill allowing a federal court to intervene in the case.

Schiavo died at age 41 at a Florida hospice after a federal judge refused to order the re-insertion of a feeding tube that had been removed under court order.

That case, Caplan said, was actually an outlier, “partly because the family was so deeply divided, partly because the issue became so political.”

First and foremost, Schiavo was unable to make her own medical decisions, or even to speak. “Part of the dispute was, ‘Who gets to make decisions for her?’ 

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Paul J. Ford, director of the NeuroEthics Program at Cleveland Clinic will be teaching at the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics Master’s program in January 2017.