In February 1990, a sudden loss of oxygen to the brain left Theresa Marie Schiavo in a coma and eventually in a profoundly incapacitated state. Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, took care of her, working alongside Terri's parents. He took her to numerous doctors; he pursued experimental treatments; he sought at least some modest restoration of her self-awareness. In November 1992, he testified at a malpractice hearing that he would care for Terri for the rest of her life, that he "wouldn't trade her for the world," that he was going to nursing school to become a better caregiver. He explicitly reaffirmed his marriage vow, "through sickness, in health."
But the lonely husband eventually began seeing other women. His frustration with his wife's lack of improvement
seemed to grow. When Terri suffered a urinary tract infection in the summer of 1993, he decided to cease all treatment, believing that her time to die had come, that this was what Terri would have wanted. But Terri's caregivers refused to let her die, and Michael Schiavo relented--for the time being. Not all Terri's doctors, however, saw their medical obligation in the same way; one physician declared that Terri had basically been dead for years, and told Michael that he should remove her feeding tube. Michael responded that he "couldn't do that to Terri," that he could never leave his wife to die of dehydration. But at some point, his heart changed. He decided that it was time for her final exit and his new beginning. He decided that his own wishes--for children, for a new family, for new love unclouded by old obligations--were also her wishes. He decided that she had a right to die and that he had a right to let her die.
Cohen then isolates the two primary questions in the case:
First, what would Terri Schiavo have wanted? Would she want to die rather than live in a profoundly incapacitated condition? Was Michael Schiavo's decision to remove her feeding tube an act of fidelity to his wife's prior wishes or an act of betrayal of the woman entrusted to his care? Second, what was Terri Schiavo's precise medical condition?
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