Schiavo case impacts Alabama

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The fate of Terry Schiavo has created controversy all over the United States and Alabama is no exception. All over television, talk radio and near every water cooler opinions have been debated over this subject since it first became public.

The Alabama legislation has decided to take immediate action to try to avoid a national debate that has stemmed from the Florida legislations back and forth battle over what measures to take.

In an attempt to create a solution before there is a problem Rep. Drew Brewbaker (R-Mongomery) has introduced the Alabama Starvation and Dehydration of Persons with Disabilities Prevention Act. Brewbaker said his act would put into legislation an act that would prevent the death of those who were still considered conscious and living.

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“The Terry Schiavo case is a sad day for our country,” Brewbaker said. “A civilized society must always err on the side of life, not death. I stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans, even those citizens with terminal disabilities.”

Brewbaker said it was the government’s duty to do all they could to preserve human lives no matter what the situation was.

“Governments limited function is to protect life and liberty, with life being the most important,” Brewbaker said. “I have introduced this legislation to make clear Alabama’s law because Florida’s law is not clear about disabilities and life termination.”

Brewbaker’s bill states it will “presume that every person legally incapable of making health care decisions has directed his or her health care providers to provide him or her with nutrition and hydration to a degree that is sufficient to sustain life.”

The proposed law would assist parents or other guardians in preventing the death of a disabled or incapacitated relative through starvation or dehydration.

The bill, known as HB 592, could be reported out of the House Judiciary Committee as early as next week. Brewbaker’s bill has a very good chance of passing both chambers of the Legislature and being signed into law this session.

Schiavo’s tube was disconnected Friday on the orders of a state judge, prompting an weekend long effort by congressional Republicans to push through emergency legislation Monday aimed at keeping her alive.

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis reacted to the legislation passed Monday morning relating to the case in Florida saying a clear and popular solution would be difficult to find. Davis said in this situation it was best to go with the laws.

“Like most Americans, I am unsure who is right and who is wrong in the tragic confrontation inside the Schiavo family,” Davis said. “But I do know that our laws and our rules for resolving legal disputes are structures that are meant to last-even in the most difficult and the most exceptional of cases.”

Davis said changing the laws to accommodate a specific case was a dangerous game. He added in the end people on both sides of the spectrum may regret this tactic.

“A wiser Congress would have recognized that when we change our laws for one special case we weaken the power of our legal system and both conservatives and liberals will regret that kind of strategy,” Davis said. “Like approximately 170 other members of Congress I chose to keep my obligations in my district rather than return to participate in a vote that is way outside the range of our role in the process of government.”

Davis said there was another big issue to be considered throughout this debate.

“There is another principal at stake,” Davis said. “Many families in Alabama are dissatisfied every day with the outcome of their cases, but they have no choice but to trust in the integrity of both their state and federal courts. If that reality is good enough for all these families it is good enough for every family.”

In the future, a situation like this could be easily avoided if the proper precautions are taken. Terri Schiavo did not have a living will, which could have made her stance on the situation cut and dry. Without the living will her husband has fought in courts for years to have the tube removed because, he said, she would not want to be kept alive artificially and she has no hope for recovery. Her parents argue she responds to them and that there is a possibility her condition could improve.

Mike Marshall, hospital administrator for Bryan Whitfield Hospital, said he is surprised at the number of people who do not have the documentation they need.

“It is surprising to see how many people do not have a living will or a will of any kind,” Marshall said. “It is a sad situation in Florida, but it can happen very easily. We try to make sure that everybody who comes in here has a living will or signs a document. It is something that everybody needs to take care of before it becomes a problem.”

Marshall said there are situations like this every day. He said after years of working in the medical field he is amazed more cases have not come up.

“I am surprised that you have not seen more cases like the one they have going on now,” Marshall said. “Having worked in rehabilitation for years there were always instances like this,” Marshall said. “There would be situations where you had brain injuries where the people were not going to get any better. You would have the one side wanting to do one thing and the parents wanting to do another and it is just horrible when you get a family ripped apart like that with something that could have been easily taken care of.”

Local attorney Tom Boggs said the state of Alabama has specific avenues to look at in a situation like the Schiavo’s.

“You will see that the law states that if two doctors, one of which is your regular physician, determine that your death is going to occur whether you have life support or not then you are saying don’t hook me up,” Boggs said. “Some people, and this goes right into the case that they are looking at right now, say all right, don’t hook me up to any machines, but they leave out one part that I put in most of them. Decisions regarding life sustaining treatment including artificially provided nutrition and hydration.”

Boggs said there are different situations to consider in this regard as well.

“You can be hooked up to an iron lung for example that will breath for you or something like that or you can just be lying there in a comatose state,” Boggs said. “They can put stuff in your veins to give you hydration and they can give you feeding tubes and give you nutrition. What I always do in a living will that I prepare is have them specifically say I do not want artificial nutrition or hydration. It could be read into a living will that you do not want any of that stuff, but I don’t want there to be any question when I am preparing one.”

The law of Alabama says if a doctor refuses to follow a living will you have to turn the case over to another physician. Section 22-8A-8 of the code of Alabama states that any health care provider who refuses to comply must notify the person involved and provides another healthcare provider. Boggs said to be sure your wishes are carried out it is important to get a copy of your will to your physician before an incident occurs.

“It is your responsibility to give a copy of the will to your doctors, the hospitals and so forth,” Boggs said. “Most people ask for it when you come in. What we do is we have them witnessed by two witnesses and notarized. We don’t take any chances whatsoever.”