Terri Schiavo and the Ethics Behind the Case

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Key Perspectives
  • Ethical Principles
  • Individual Perspectives
  • Conclusion


Terri Schiavo, a 41-year-old woman from Florida who was in a persevering vegetative state for the 15 years before her death on Mar. 31, 2005. This case was at the focal point of a political, legitimate and media whirlwind over the evacuation of a sustaining tube. Exaggeration has run high on the two sides of the controversy. Religious preservationists have denounced the withdrawal of her feeding tube as a 'mortal sin'; defenders of a 'right to die' asserted that 'Congress will presently go trampling into the most, private, individual and difficult choices families must make.' (Weijer, 2005). Powerless to concede to how to push ahead, Schiavo's husband and parents looked for a cure in the courts.

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On Feb. 25, 1990, Terri Schiavo endured a heart failure brought about by hypokalemia initiated by bulimia which resulted in severe lack of oxygen and brain damage. Several months after the incident, computed tomography revealed severe atrophy of both cerebral hemispheres, and electroencephalography showed no evidence of cortical activity. (Weijer, 2005) Clinically, Schiavo settled into a constant vegetative express, a condition of eyes-open unconsciousness with sleep– wake cycles in which patients are uninformed of themselves or their condition. In spite of the poor visualization for important neurologic recuperation, standard and trial treatments were regulated, to no promising improving effect for years. At exactly that point did her husband, Michael Schiavo, acknowledge the diagnosis of her specialists that her condition was irreversible. Recanting a statement that his wife had once made, 'I would prefer not to be kept alive on a machine' he denied further life-supporting measures on her behalf. (Weijer, 2005) However, her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, never acknowledged the determination of her tireless vegetative state and vivaciously contradicted their son in-law's choice. Seven years of litigation produced 30 lawful judgements, all supporting Michael Schiavo's choice for his wife’s benefit. What began as a private dispute moved from Florida circuit courts to district courts to state courts to federal courts, to Congress, to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Caplan, 2015). In spite of the fact the courts sided with Michael Schiavo, the state legislature passed a bill, known as Terri's law, giving Florida Gov. Jeb Bush authority to prevent the removal of the feeding tube. After much back and forth involving state and federal courts, Terri's feeding tube was removed, ending the long legal struggle over her fate. (CBS, 2016)

Key Perspectives

The key people in the case of the Schiavo case were Terri’s husband and parents. Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, acknowledged the prognoses of her numerous neurologists that her condition was irreversible. He trusted she could never rise up out of her torpid state, as did each specialist who analyzed her. He didn't wish for her to live in a lasting vegetative state, oblivious, inert and powerless to associate with the world since he felt that she would not have any desire to be in that condition. Recalling an explanation that his wife had once made, 'I would prefer not to be kept alive on a machine.” (Caplan, 2015) He denied further life-supporting measures for her sake. However, her family, especially her parents Mary and Bob Schiavo never acknowledged the diagnosis of her steady vegetative state and vivaciously restricted their son in-law's choice. Terri's family sharply opposed his wishes. They insisted that Terri would have desired to live, that her husband did not have her best welfares at heart and that they were being unreasonably and unfairly pushed aside in their push to spare her life.

Ethical Principles

In the Terri Schiavo case, the principles that applied to her case were justice, beneficence and nonmalfeasance. The only principle that didn’t apply was patient autonomy. The principle of beneficence was considered applicable because during the entire time Schiavo was ill. Everyone including healthcare professionals and the family tried to help her to the best of their ability. It was the healthcare provider’s duty to be beneficial to the patient, as well as to take positive steps to prevent or remove harm from the patient and they did just that. The family was also considerate and displayed characteristics of a loving caring family who meant well and wanted the best for her no matter the situation at hand. They wanted to do whatever they thought would comfort her or bring her back to her regular state. Moreover, the principle of justice applied to this case because of her inability to state her preferences and ensure that they were respected. A moral concern arose because of that and a lack of a will. Terri was placed at a disadvantage when it came to make crucial decisions about her health and well-being. Considering there was no harm intentionally created nor injury to the patient there wasn’t a violation of nonmalfeasance. Lastly, patient autonomy didn’t apply to the case because Terri was in a vegetative state which impaired her speech so she couldn’t verbally or express her feelings thus decisions regarding her own life.

Individual Perspectives

Quinn: I believe spouses have the final word on making medical decisions for their incapacitated or vegetative spouse. So, her husband choice should've been honored in the first place and this shouldn't have advanced to a fight in court. According to her husband, she wouldn't had preferred to “live” under those conditions. In addition to what he claims she desired and his personal request, the fact of the matter is year after year the doctors were unsuccessful in regaining an improved prognosis for Terri so that alone should’ve been enough to corroborate her husband’s plea. Terri’s quality of life was basically diminished. Having lost what, it implies for an individual to be alive is comparable to being dead.

Ashley: I feel like this case was heartbreaking and very unfortunate considering Terri’s family had to watch her remain in a vegetative state for so long and she never prospered no matter the actions they took to try and help her fight this battle, it was a long stressful journey. After everything that was said and done the end results was still death something that they wanted to prevent. I agree with the husband because he was tired of seeing his wife suffer and he was simply proclaiming to be abiding by her wishes of what his wife wanted according to him. Although it wasn’t proven, and she had no living will stating this he was just keeping his promise he made to his wife.

Chris: In conclusion to this entire situation I feel that the responsibility lies entirely with the husband, Michael Schiavo. I feel that she had expressed herself to him and her brother over the course of their marriage that she didn’t want to be a burden on anyone, and that she’d prefer not to live in a persistent vegetative state. Though there wasn’t a will or anything stating that she ever said these words, I don’t think it’s fair to her that she remains in such a deplorable situation.


In conclusion, we agree with the outcome of this case. The Schiavo case shows that this kind of tragedy can strike anyone, regardless of their age, and that everyone should have a living will. Health care professionals should encourage living will planning for people with or ones that acquire severe health threatening diseases or conditions. Had Terri Schiavo had a living will, all things considered, the fights in court would not be occurring at all or, would have been progressively constrained. Had she had a living will, her family and her husband, just as the courts, would have comprehended what she would have needed. In the event that her convictions were made known, everybody could have done need she needed, as opposed to surrendering it over to a court to settle on a choice regarding what she needed.

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