Terri Schiavo: Ethics and Decision Making in Healthcare Environmentst

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Table of Contents

  • Brief Summary of the Terri Schiavo Case
  • Moral Agents and Their Motivation in the Terri Schiavo Case
  • The Judges
  • Medical Physicians
  • Michael Schiavo and Terri Schiavo’s Parents
  • Tensions Between Legal and Ethical Actions in the Terri Schiavo Case
  • Author’s Perspective
  • Conclusion

The aim of this paper is to identify the ethical agents that were involved in the Terri Schaivo case. What were the ethical principles that were considered and which ones were disregarded. What were the motivations that invoked the decisions that were made? It will also take a greater look at the tensions that were there between the legal and the ethical actions that were made.

Brief Summary of the Terri Schiavo Case

The case of Terri Schiavo was one that in sighted conflicting opinions from people all over the country. Terri Schiavo was a woman who suffered a stroke that left her in a vegetative state. Her husband who was her legal guardian petitioned the court to let her die after all medical treatments proved ineffective but her parents were against this. This led to a long legal battle that eventually led the court to allowing the feeding tube that kept her alive to be removed. This brought into question if what was done was ethical. Those that sided with the courts considered its judgment as ethical while those that sided with her parents viewed the ruling as a murder.

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Moral Agents and Their Motivation in the Terri Schiavo Case

A moral agent can be defined as an individual who can differentiate right from wrong and has a responsibility to ensure that they do not case others unjustified harm. There are various moral agents who played a major role in this case. We could say that the Judges, the medical team at the hospital that she was admitted, her husband, her parents and even the activist groups that were involved in the case can all be considered as moral agents in the Terri Schiavo case.

The Judges

In the case we can state that the judges could be regarded as moral agents since they are the ones who passed the rulings to either grant the petition or to decline it. The legal cases for this case ran between the year 1992 and 2000. In the case of the judges, they may have acted in accordance to the legal guidelines. In the State of Florida where the case was being held, individuals have a legal right to refuse any form of medication. In such a case, treatment can be stopped if there is a proper evidence that this are or would have been what the patient wanted. Let’s consider that from a legal aspect; the fact that she was in a persistent vegetative state was not relevant to the court and therefore the judge did not put this into consideration. The judge’s decisions would have been purely based on facts. The principle of non-maleficence that we should be obligated to do no harm was put into question. Questions such as whether or not the judge was doing the right thing by agreeing to a petition that would end someone’s life came up. Most people felt that this violated Terri Schiova’s right to live while some argued that she also had the right-to-die.

Medical Physicians

The medical doctors who over saw Terri can also be regarded to as moral agents. In her case. When a patient is unable to make a conscious decision on what kind of medical treatment they would to get, this means that they have lost their autonomy (Garrett & Garrett, 2010). The doctors may have involved her husband in choosing treatments that were best for her. The doctors may have also possibly made their decisions on the medical test and results of different treatments that Terri may have undergone. The principle of beneficence should have been applied ('Ethical principles in healthcare', 2015). This means that the doctors should be involved in making decisions with the patient’s best interests in mind.

Michael Schiavo and Terri Schiavo’s Parents

Terri’s parents and husband can be regarded to as moral agents in her case. In this paper we identify her husband’s motivation for his decision was that he did not want her to suffer and believe that his wife would not have wanted to continue living on life support (Hanson, 2004). Her parents on the other hand believed that with good medical care Terri could still recover from her condition. They therefore opposed Michael Schiavo’s petition in a bid to give their daughter a chance. Some could say that their view would have been wholly sentimental and that they did not want to acknowledge that their daughter did not have a chance of recovering. These can be derived from her doctor’s reports. The ethical principle of justice that states that we should treat people equally and not impose unfair burdens may have come into consideration. On one hand, we could say that Her husband viewed her condition as a burden and wished to relieve her of it while on the other hand her parents thought that their daughter’s right to life was being violated.

Tensions Between Legal and Ethical Actions in the Terri Schiavo Case

From a legal stand point, the decision made by the court was Just. From the facts that were presented, from the medical reports to an individual’s right to refuse treatment, Terri Schiavo had the right to die. If what her husband stated that she would have wanted to stop using life support was true, then the ruling was not violating the ethical principles of autonomy and non-maleficence. But from an ethical view, lets state a scenario where by an individual who is depressed refused to eat. Are we obligated to get them medical help or simply let them die? In Terri’s case some could have stated that had husband could have forfeited custody to her parents without interfering with his own interests. This means that Terri would have continued to live. The legal and ethical actions in her case both would have been right.

Author’s Perspective

As a legal decision maker in this case, I would have declined the petition to end Terri Schiavo’s life (Stewart, 2019). All humans have the right to live, it would be ethically wrong to deny someone a chance to live due to their condition. I would have put into consideration the fact that there have been previous cases in which an individual recovered from a vegetative state after years (Matsuda, n.d.). The passing of the petition denied Terri Schiova a chance at recovery. In my opinion the principles of non-maleficence and beneficence was not upheld.


Legal, Ethical and even religious aspects should all be put into consideration when a case where the actual individual is unable to provide his or her opinion is involved. There are multiple ways in which the case would have been concluded in order to allow Terri to continue living. Some religious people may feel that the decision to end her life was not in line with their belief that only God should take away life. On the other hand, legally, the judge’s ruling was just whether or not it was in line with the four main ethical issues that govern is important to consider all facts especially when an individual’s life is involved.

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