Barbara A. Noah (Western New England University School of Law) has posted The Role of Religion in the Schiavo Controversy. The abstract follows.
The brief life of Theresa Marie Schiavo and the dispute over her end-of-life care captured public awareness in a way that few such cases have done. The reasons for the nearly unprecedented public attention to her case are two-fold. The decision by various religious groups and governmental entities to intervene in the dispute surrounding her care in order to promote conservative causes (some of them only tenuously related to her particular medical circumstances) prompted unusually intense media coverage. In addition, the ensuing publicity surrounding Theresa’s tragic condition — an unexpected cardiac arrest left her in a permanent vegetative state at the age of twenty-six — provided a vivid and poignant reminder of the very precarious nature of life. The case placed multiple issues in dispute. First, there was some debate over whether Theresa’s medical condition was indeed hopeless. Second, although the Florida courts repeatedly confirmed that the evidence of Theresa’s wishes under the circumstances provided a legally sufficient basis for withdrawing life support, many onlookers questioned whether she would in fact choose to die. In particular, the case raised questions about the appropriate role of Catholic and Christian principles in end-of-life decision-making. This essay focuses on the latter question in light of the relevant ethical and legal principles, as well as guidance from the Catholic Church on end-of-life decision-making. As explained within, the Church’s teachings fail to address the most complex issues, leaving many end-of-life decisions to the conscience of the individual patient. Adding to the difficulty, although courts certainly consider patients’ religious principles in making determinations about end-of-life care, judicial inquiry into religious principles generally lacks nuance. Finally, the essay considers the effects of the intervention of various political and religious conservative organizations in the dispute over Theresa’s care and examines the implications of such interventions for future cases.