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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
The Nancy Cruzan assisted death
The Nancy Cruzan case revolved around the Cruzan family who, out of mercy, sought the help of the law in order to terminate their daughter’s life. Nancy Cruzan had fallen into a coma after a car accident, and despite medical attention, her body could not perform without the assistance of a life-support machine. It is at this point that her family decided to go to court in order to seek help in ending her life, because they thought she had no chance of recuperating fully. The Missouri district court was in favor of the wishes of the Cruzan family, but the Missouri Supreme Court did not agree because the jury said that they did not have sufficient proof of their daughter’s wish to die. It was at this point that the Cruzan family sought the help of the United States Supreme Court.
This court had the following problems to contend with, in giving its decision. Firstly, it was the question of who had the right to decide on whether to terminate Nancy Cruzan’s life; was it her family or the Missouri State? Secondly, would Nancy Cruzan have chosen to let her family terminate her life if she were in a position to make decisions herself? Thirdly, whose decision should it have been not to keep Nancy Cruzan on life-support, yet she had not authorized her family to do so? These problems arose from the fact that Nancy Cruzan had not issued beforehand, any authorization on what measures she would have wanted her family to take in case she was unable to recover; where would she have preferred to receive medical attention and who would make decisions on her behalf if she would not be in a position to do so.
From the point of view of the Cruzan family, the Missouri Supreme Court did not execute justice for their daughter because it based its decision on the view that by allowing mercy killing, it would be legalizing other forms of murder such as suicide and abortion. The Cruzan family faulted the court for not taking into account the immense agony of their daughter as well as theirs. In addition, the family’s opinion was that the Missouri State was spending a huge amount of money in keeping Nancy Cruzan on life-support, whereas these funds could help other patients and save them from death.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court of Missouri defended its decision by arguing that by permitting mercy killing, it would be going against its state’s law, as it would amount to committing murder. When the United States Supreme Court handled the case, it ruled in favor of the Missouri Supreme Court’s judgment that Nancy Cruzan should remain on life-support because her family failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that their daughter would have wished to have them terminate her life. The United States Supreme Court decided that the ruling of the Missouri Supreme court was in order because the law allows states to demand unquestionable evidence in all the cases they handle. The decision of the United States Supreme Court to side with that of Missouri showed that the latter was mainly pre-occupied with protecting the sanctity of life rather than respecting the Cruzans’ independence and rights to make their own decisions.
Some of the judges however, were not in favor of the court’s ruling, because they considered the Cruzans’ right to discontinue medical care for their daughter as more important than the Missouri State’s aim to protect her life. In their view, the Supreme Courts of Missouri State and that of the United States were not respecting the rights of Nancy Cruzan and her family. In the end, the Cruzans had their way when a Missouri district court ruled in their favor on the 14th of December 1990. The court considered the Nancy Cruzan case as one of a lower level as it did not require her family to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that she did not want to be on life-support. Instead, the local judge based his decision on the spoken word that Nancy Cruzan’s parents and friends gave in court, without demanding that they provide written proof of her wish not to stay on life-support.
The Nancy Cruzan case does present a difficult situation in the practice of ethics in caring for patients who are terminally ill and have no hope of recovery. The situation is made complex by the fact that other people besides the patient, are the ones who have to decide his fate, especially when there does not exist any directive on whether he would like to stay on life-support or undergo mercy killing. In the Nancy Cruzan case, the Supreme Courts had a right to look out for the protection of the patient’s life, but the Cruzan family was equally not at fault in seeking to reduce the suffering of their loved one, as well as theirs. The Supreme Courts were not justified in requesting the Cruzan family to provide sufficient proof of their claims that their daughter would not have desired to stay on life-support. This is because there was less chance of her family’s decision being motivated by other personal interests, apart from reducing their suffering and mental anguish.
The Terri Schiavo case, just like the Nancy Cruzan case, raises ethical questions on whether to remove a terminally ill patient from a life-support machine. Unlike, Nancy, Terri did not suffer due to injuries from a car accident, rather, she collapsed in her house after suffering a heart attack. Her brain could not get sufficient oxygen, and due to this, she fell into a coma. Just like Nancy, Terri had no hope of recovery, and this hopeless state of affairs made her husband to seek legal assistance from a Florida Court to have her removed from life-support. However, unlike in Nancy Cruzan’s case, where her parents agitated for her removal from life-support, Terri’s parents were against her husband’s efforts to terminate her life, because, they argued, she was not in an unconscious state. The Florida Court ruled in favor of Terri’s husband, but later she was put back on life-support.
At a second attempt, the court decided that Terri be disconnected from the feeding machine, but this decision met opposition from her parents. The then United States President George Bush also intervened to stop the court’s decision, but all was in vain. The doctors removed Terri from life-support and she died on the 31st of March 2005. Unlike in the case of Nancy Cruzan, where the Missouri Supreme Court refused to allow her family to terminate her life because they did not have sufficient evidence proving that that would have been her last wish, in the Terri Schiavo case, those who opposed her husband’s decision, based their argument on possible personal interests of her husband. They argued that Terri’s husband had a motive of having his wife’s property all to himself, and that was why he wanted to terminate her life. In addition, they argued, Terri’s parents opposed her husband because if they allowed him to end her life, he would be the sole custodian of her property and they would not have a share in it.
Just like in the Nancy Cruzan case, there was no written proof of Terri’s wishes to be sustained or not, on life-support. The court listened to oral evidence from witnesses who claimed that Terri would not have wanted to stay on life-support. The court decided that these were sufficient enough to grant the wish of Terri’s husband. However, unlike Nancy Cruzan’s case where there was no other evidence presented apart from the word-of-mouth testimonies of her parents and friends, with the help of doctors, Terri’s parents sought to present written as well as visual evidence of their daughter’s condition. In addition, the fact that Terri was a staunch Catholic added a religious twist to the case as her religion outlaws any form of mercy killing.
In brief, the Terri Schiavo case was more complex than the Nancy Cruzan case, due to the conflicting interests of her husband, her parents, and third parties such as the Catholic Church. This analysis concludes that, in this case, the Florida Court should have considered striking a balance between the evidence the witnesses presented and their interests in the case.
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