Terri Schiavo’s death last Thursday left the country polarized over her right to live or die save a single point of agreement: the vital importance of a living will.
Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman, had been in a persistent vegetative state since 1990 and became the center of a heated battle when her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, made the decision to remove the feeding tube that was keeping her alive.
Bob and Mary Schindler, Schiavo’s parents, made attempts to gain guardianship rights and reverse the decision through a series of court appeals. As the case moved through the judicial system, aided by unprecedented political support, media coverage turned into frenzy.
But as the dust settles, many have turned their gaze inward, asking the question, “What would I do?”
The Schiavo case has highlighted the need to clarify end-of-life wishes, spurring conversation in homes, classrooms, coffee shops, and online discussion groups around the country.
“I talked to my family about living wills over Spring Break, when we heard about this whole Schiavo thing,” said Sandy Martin, a sophomore who preferred that her real name not be used. “My father has one because he had cancer a few years ago, but I never even thought of making one for myself until now.”
“Has anyone written a living will since the Schiavo case?” asked an anonymous poster in an open forum on Craigslist.org. “My husband and I are right now. I just want to get something down on paper. I must make sure my Mom (how I love her!) can’t go against my wishes.”
Many have gone so far as to post their living wills online.
Living wills, or advance directives, are legally binding documents which, according to the Wills For America Web site, specify an individual’s wishes in regards to medication, treatment, or resuscitation should he or she have an incurable, irreversible, or terminal condition and be unable to communicate. Such documents allow an individual to designate a particular family member or friend as the person responsible for making crucial decisions.
Had Schiavo completed such a document, the family’s guesswork and legal battle could have been prevented. But Schiavo suffered severe brain damage due to a bulimia-related potassium shortage at the young age of 26, long before most would think a living will necessary.
“I've been talking about this with family and friends and told my parents exactly what I want done to me if I get into a coma or if I die,” said Junior Sara Jacobsen. “In a couple weeks we are gonna sit down with a lawyer so I can get all of my wishes down in writing.”
Eleanor Vincent, a Mills Alumna and visiting professor of Creative Writing, has experienced first-hand how difficult it can be to make decisions for an incapacitated loved one. When, in 1992, her 19-year-old daughter, Maya, was fatally injured in a horseback riding accident, Vincent was forced to decide whether or not she would have wanted her organs donated.
“Everyone, young or old, should let their family know their wishes and sign an organ donor card as well as to make out an advance directive to specify whether they want to be kept alive by artificial means,” said Vincent.
“It would have been very helpful for me if she had signed a donor card,” Vincent said. “I had to make the decision on her behalf, and although I believe it was the right one, it was extremely painful.”
Megan Brian, a junior, has already clarified her wishes. “In a science class I took in high school we talked about different ideas about what ‘dead’ means,” she said. “We read all these articles by different people, and I realized that there was no consensus. At that point I told my mom exactly when I wanted to be cut off, so when this case came up I didn’t have much to add.”
But the Schiavo case appears to have shaken many people to attention. The U.S. Living Will Directory national registry has reported the number of hits on their Web site went from about 500 to 600 per day to more than 5,000, since Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed on March 18.
“A lot of my friends are talking about living wills in light of it [the Schiavo case],” said junior Blake Saffitz.
The Associated Press reported that will-making software sales have risen 63 percent between March 18 and March 23.
“We've never seen sales like this,'' said Clark Miller, a spokesman for Nolo.com Inc., which created Quicken WillMaker Plus 2005, in an interview with the AP. “The living will has simply become a part of American consciousness in a way it hadn't been before.”