Mark Antony Rossi’s Machine Therapy No. 6

Living Will and the Will to Live

By now we are all familiar with Terri Schiavo, a young housewife, who suffered a massive heart attack fifteen years ago causing severe brain damage and a state of neurological twilight persisting to this very day. By the time this short article goes to press, Mrs. Schiavo will have starved to death at the insistence of her husband and with the permission of the legal system.

What brought her heart-wrenching situation to the forefront of public view is unfortunately a very simple matter of neglect. Mrs. Schiavo, like most Americans, never took the time to express her deepest wishes through a legal instrument called a “living will.” This instrument when initiated allows your voice to be heard in times of prolonged unconsciousness. In the absence of a “living will”, a legal battle ensued between Mrs. Schiavo’s husband, Michael, a man who had since moved on with a common law wife and two children, who swears his wife did not want to live in vegetative state, and her parents, the Schindlers, who believe based on their religious convictions, their daughter might still come out of her fifteen year coma and walk among us again.

Sadly, a million dollar malpractice settlement is also at stake and some insist this is really at the heart of this tragic family feud. While it may be easy to cast each side as villains, husband—greedy, parents—religious zealots, that oversimplication serves a ravenous media machine seeking sexy headlines and not complicated personal truth. For any of us to arrive at that most personal of truth we have to answer tough questions:

Does the absence of a living will signal the go-ahead for death?
If so, should the power of life and death, fall upon the husband or parents?
If grown children are involved, should they have a say?
Should the government have any say at all?
Should insurance companies or hospitals have a say?

It’s probably a horrible thing to admit but the absence of a “living will” in comatose cases does invite all of the above and more. By not enacting that simple document we empower conflicted family members to emotionally strangle each other over wishes you should have chiseled in stone years ago. Distasteful as it sounds like so much in America these days this delicate decision is also a business decision. A living will can ensure more financial stability for the loved ones left behind if you shorten an expensive and useless stay in a hospital. But the reverse may also be argued; a “living will” protects the life of a person who might believe more time will return them to the active living. It also protects against family members with less than pure motives or hospitals too quick to free a bed or doctors too jaded to give a damn or finally a government too ready to kill a patient to save a buck or make a political point.

None should be too happy or surprised about the conduct of the players involved in this seedy forced funeral march. The political left from the Florida courts to the media organs again prove they will far more willing to save an amoral life-taker on death row than an honest tax-payer at death’s door. The political right might feel comfortable and consistent is calling for life rather than abortion or suicide but selective reliance on court decisions again calls into question whether politics or principle is truly at stake. The best of the lawyers fall back on “get a living will and there would be no problem” and they are right. The worst pander to whatever group throws them some business. Religious leaders are as wishy-washy as ever. And I am truly disappointed in them since the Schiavo tragedy is not a theory, it is happening right now, and continues to happen to thousands of families. The hospitals hang out with the best lawyers, see comment above.

The doctors are crybabies who claim no one listens to them in one breath and then say, “Get a second opinion” in another. Folks when life and death is at stake, I think we might need more than a second opinion. What we don’t need are doctors whining about no one listening to them. Doctors only seem to get brave and speak up when a patient is unable to speak for themselves. Otherwise you can’t get a straight word out of them that isn’t hinged in legalistic doctor-speak. And finally why must we allow a government to bless, even enforce, a death sentence without the true choice of the individual revealed.

I concede Mrs. Schiavo should have had a “living will.” But in the absence of that clarifying instrument we as a society should decide to protect life rather than take it. Mr. Schiavo’s claim that his wife did not want to live in a vegetative state amounts to hearsay evidence inadmissible in any court of law. Yet Mrs. Schiavo is being starved to death nonetheless. The lesson in my heart remains the same: convenience is never clever or cheap. For it trades money for time and robs the impatient blind. A good friend told me the other day that America will only be free of racism when we weep for a black child the same as we weep for a white child. I second that notion—and amend the following, America will only make sense when those who fight for fur, trees, owls, dolphins and whales also fight for Terri Schiavo.

Mark Antony Rossi is a bioethics expert and author of "The Intruder Bulletins: The Dark Side of Technology" now available in paperback at,, and