Kelly L. Rooth, Shareholder
Americans today are no closer to making end-of-life plans, five years after Terri Schiavo’s death following a lengthy legal battle over her “right to die.” The majority of Americans do not have the legal documents specifying how far to allow caregivers to go in keeping them alive artificially.
Five years ago today, Terri Schiavo died after a long and controversial legal battle between her husband and parents. Schiavo first collapsed in her St. Petersburg, Florida home in 1990. Her heart stopped and she suffered irreversible brain damage that left her in a permanent vegetative state.
Schiavo had no advanced directive or living will in place. Schiavo’s husband argued that his wife would not have wanted to live in a vegetative state but her parents wanted her to be kept alive. What followed was a huge battle in the court system that spanned multiple jurisdictions, including the United States Supreme Court. Ultimately, the court ordered Schiavo’s feeding tube to be removed and she died two weeks later.
The Schiavo case brought much-needed awareness to the necessity for an individual to have legal documents specifying how far caregivers should go in keeping them alive artificially. These documents are called advanced directives or living wills and usually specify the individual’s wishes regarding life-support devices, such as feeding tubes and respirators, and to what extent the individuals wishes to be kept alive in the event of coma, brain damage, and other similar conditions.
Americans reacted to the Schiavo case by increasingly completing advanced directives and living wills. However, it does not appear that the momentum of this movement has continued over the past five years.
Americans have witnessed how Schiavo’s “worst case scenario” played out tragically in the courts and between her family members. They are aware of the perils of not have an advanced directive in place, yet there are only 20 to 30 percent of adults in the United States with advanced directives. This is the same percentage that existed before the Schiavo case.
End-of-life documents, especially in a situation where family members may disagree, are essential. However, a family discussion may be even more important. You should communicate your views with your family, especially if they change.
Why is the percentage of Americans with advanced directives still so low? People may not be sure about what they want to take place in the event of a catastrophe. They may fear they are signing away the ability to receive life saving treatment. Because people’s wishes change over the years, they may believe memorializing their present desires will bind them even if they change their minds later.
In the event of pending death, most people simply want to be at home with their family and not in pain. They are not prepared to discuss life support treatments until they are faced with a real life health scare. These issues are worth discussing with an elder law attorney who can explain the various options available to you.