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Reflections on Ethics 37
Bad Law; Immoral Law

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Last night Congress passed a law creating new legal remedies for the parents of Terri Shiavo. President Bush promptly signed the bill into law.

This article is not about the merits of the Shiavo case, which I might address in another article. It is about the merit of this new law.

For those outside North America and possibly not in receipt of the non-stop news coverage, Ms. Schiavo has been in a "persistent vegetative state" since 1990, or 15 years so far. For at least 12 of those years her husband who claims this was her wish, with the support of physicians familiar with the case, has been trying to have her disconnected from a feeding tube so that her body may die. Her parents, believing her condition is not as bad as the doctors claim, have been opposing this in the courts. While their delaying tactics have been successful pending legal decisions, the courts, in eventually rendering decisions, have consistently supported the husband.

Legal avenues exhausted, the parent turned to the politicians with the support of various "pro-life organizations, conservative Christian organizations, along with James Dobson and his Focus on the Family group.

The Florida House passed a bill blocking the withholding of food and water from patients in a persistent vegetative state who did not leave instructions about their care. However, the bill was defeated in the Florida Senate, and the battle moved to the US Congress which passed a bill specifically applying to Ms. Shiavo's parents allowing them to bring the case to a federal court for yet another hearing. President Bush made a very public display of signing this bill into law.

This is bad law.

It's a bad law, not because of the merits of the Shiavo case, but because it applies only to the Shiavo case. It has no impact on medical decisions with respect to other patients in a similar condition.

If it is considered wrong by legislators to remove the feeding tube from Terri Shiavo, then they have to consider it wrong to remove the feeding tube from all patients in a persistent vegetative state, even though this is an accepted and ethically approved medical practice.

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans, in considering their own wishes if they were in such a state, would opt for death rather than stay in a vegetative state indefinitely. It is highly probably that the personal views of Congressmen are similar to their constituents. They would not dare vote for banning the practice for everyone. Then it would apply to them also. Rather, they have taken the cowardly politically expedient route of bowing to the wishes of James Dobson.

Members of the US Congress and the US President have knowingly[1] opted to score cheap political points with a vocal minority rather than consider the general implications of the position taken.

This is bad law. This is immoral. This is unethical. But what do you expect from politicians?

We should expect more!


  1. Several news reports refered to an eyes-only memo for Republican senators that described the Shiavo case as a "great political issue" because it played to the Christian conservative movement.