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Terri's Tragedy
Could Terri's case happen in Canada? It already has.

All of North America watched the terrible tragedy of Terri Schiavo. For reasons unknown, Christians were portrayed as evil monsters forcing Terri to live against her will. The issues are much more complex than that.

Most doctors wouldn't say that feeding tubes are "medical treatment" and can therefore be withdrawn.

I have been in the situation of having to make tough medical choices at the end of life for a loved one. It is not always easy when a person is in their last days to make decisions about how much treatment and when to let go. But the Schiavo case seemed different. Terri was not terminally ill.

Terri was injured 15 years ago and suffered severe brain damage. There was a great deal of dispute as to Terri's condition. The courts said that Terri was a "vegetable" but her parents said that they interacted with her. She sat up in a wheelchair. She had a personality. She was not in a coma.

But Terri couldn't swallow. That was the source of the controversy. For 15 years, she had obtained her food and water through a feeding tube. Most doctors wouldn't say that feeding tubes are "medical treatment" and can therefore be withdrawn. But others say that nutrition and hydration are basic necessities of life whether they are delivered on a fork or through a tube.

According to the law in the U.S., and also in Canada, a person must consent to have medical treatment. If a person is not able to consent to his or her own medical treatment, the next of kin consent on his or her behalf. In this case, Terri's husband was her next of kin. Terri's husband had asked that the feeding tube be removed. This meant that Terri had to die of dehydration and she had to starve to death. But Terri's parents desperately wanted Terri to live. They pleaded with courts to grant them custody of Terri so that they could consent to treatment.

And to complicate matters, Terri's husband had moved on with his life. He is living with another woman and has a family with her. This made his decisions regarding Terri just a little suspect.

Could Terri's case happen here?

According to the Ottawa Citizen Terri's case has already happened here. The case was not widely publicized at the time but back in 2002 a 43-year-old man suffered pretty much the same problems as Terri. His wife of 12 years made the decision to remove his feeding tube. But the man's brothers and sisters did not agree with this and threatened court action. Ultimately, they did go to court and the judge sided with the man's wife.

In Canada, however, we have the additional complication of publicly-funded health care. There have been more publicized cases where hospitals wanted to remove treatment against the wishes of the family.

In a very sad case in Manitoba in 1997, a hospital wanted to put a "do-not-resuscitate" order on the chart of an infant who had been shaken so badly that he was in a vegetative state. The parents still had legal guardianship of the child and did not agree with this order. The judge ruled that it was up to the doctor, not the legal guardians, to make this decision when a patient is in an "irreversible vegetative state." This was quite a change because up to that point, doctors could not unilaterally make these decisions.

In 1998, the family of an elderly man who suffered from Parkinson's Disease [] as well as multiple strokes successfully reversed a "do-not-resuscitate" order from the man's chart. The Riverview hospital in Winnipeg argued that Mr. Sawatsky's condition was irreversible. But he was not in a vegetative state. The court ordered that Mr. Sawatsky be moved to a hospital where he would receive the kind of care that his family wanted.

All this to say that the issues are even more complex in Canada than in the U.S. and we have seen enough ink spilled in the Schiavo case to know that there are at least two sides for Terri.

An editorial in the Calgary Herald rightly pointed out that there is a difference between the right to die and the right to life. The right to life is considered a basic human right. The right to die seems a bit off base. There is no "human right" to die.

Despite the fact that there is a significant lobby in Canada for the right to die, there is no such right. Marcel Tremblay recently committed suicide in a bid to put euthanasia on the public policy agenda.

But when we get into discussions about issues like assisted suicide, right to life, right to death and euthanasia, there is a great deal of confusion about what all these terms mean.

For Christians, we start with the premise that all people are created in the image of God. This makes us valuable and precious no matter what our life circumstances. But we also do not fear death because it is not the end but a new beginning.

When we come to make decisions about life and death, we need to keep these two principles in mind. We neither rush death nor artificially prolong life.

Ahh. If only it were so simple. Medical care can keep us alive much longer than it once did. There seem to be endless treatments that can prolong life.

I don't have all the answers for the tough questions. There is a point at which we must release our loved ones into the arms of our creator. And so, I leave you with the promise that Jesus made, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

Janet Epp Buckingham is director of Law and Public Policy and general legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in Ottawa.




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