Should the State Make Life-or-Death Medical Decisions? ; the Case of Terri Schiavo, Which the Florida High Court Hears Tuesday, Will Help Establish Procedures in Future Cases

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A six-year legal dispute over whether to terminate the life support of a severely brain-damaged Florida woman has placed the state's highest court at the center of a bitter clash between the right to live - and the right die.

Ultimately at issue in the case of Terri Schiavo is whether the nutrition tube that sustains her life should remain connected. But what will occupy a lion's share of the argument Tuesday as her case is considered by the Florida Supreme Court is whether state lawmakers and Gov. Jeb Bush overstepped their constitutional authority last fall when they intervened to reattach Mrs. Schiavo's nutrition tube after a state judge had ordered it disconnected.

More precisely, the justices must consider competing provisions of the Florida Constitution. On one hand, the constitution recognizes a strong government interest in preserving life. On the other hand, the same document guarantees that Floridians may make private healthcare decisions - including the refusal of medical treatment - without facing government interference.

Schiavo's case resides at the turbulent intersection of faith, ethics, the law, and medicine. It has attracted national attention in part because the life-or-death issues break along the same ideological fault lines that divide the nation over legalized abortion.

But the case is also important because it will help establish procedures to be used in future life-or-death cases involving individuals who are unable to communicate a desire to live or die. "Everybody has their own ideological ax to grind in this case," says Jon Eisenberg, an Encino, Calif., lawyer who filed a friend-of-the- court brief on behalf of 55 bioethicists.

The case pits death-with-dignity supporters against pro-life advocates. It pits the Florida judiciary against Governor Bush and conservative state lawmakers. And it pits Schiavo's husband, Michael, against her parents, Mary and Robert Schindler.

Mrs. Schiavo was in her 20s when a medical emergency left her in her current condition. For 14 years she has been fed by way of a nutrition tube. It is surgically implanted in her stomach.

She did not have a living will and is unable to communicate whether she wants to continue living. But Florida law allows the courts to make a determination of her intent based on the testimony of others. …