The Death Penalty is “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” But You Can Starve Patients to Death

Opinion   |   Bobby Schindler   |   Feb 3, 2015   |   12:33PM   |   Washington, DC

Recently, the United States Supreme Court announced it would review the procedure for lethal injection used for death row inmates across the nation and whether or not that procedure is unconstitutional. According to the report, “cruel and unusual’ punishment concerns have been raised after a few executions didn’t go as planned, violating the rights of the person being executed.

It’s too bad my sister Terri Schiavo wasn’t on death row. She would have been treated with more compassion and the laws would have offered her better protection.

This is because every day in the US (and worldwide), it is perfectly legal to deliberately starve and dehydrate to death our medically weakest American citizens. Sadly, this daily cruelty goes on with hardly a notice.

terrischiavo8It wasn’t long ago that food and water, via feeding tubes, was considered ordinary and basic care. However, the lobbyists have since worked to reclassify the administration of food and water through feeding tubes as “medical treatment”. So if a person acquires a brain injury, has Alzheimer’s disease, has had a stroke, or has difficulty swallowing, and is in need of a feeding tube, they are at risk of having it removed because of this redefinition, leading to a death by dehydration and starvation, which can take more than two-weeks. And it’s completely legal.

This can include our vets returning home from war torn regions who have experienced catastrophic brain injuries and require a feeding tube. (Now, some bioethicists even advocate removing spoon feeding from Alzheimer’s patients if they ordered themselves starved to death in a written advance directive. Be it known, spoon feeding isn’t a medical treatment.)

Where are their “cruel and unusual” punishment concerns for these innocent people?

It gets even more disturbing, if that is possible. In the case of brain injury, physicians are using a particular diagnosis to warrant the removal of a person’s food and hydration, which ongoing research has revealed is inaccurate almost 50% of the time. You read that correctly. We can starve and dehydrate to death a cognitively disabled person based on a diagnosis that is wrong half of the time. It’s referred to as persistent vegetative state (PVS).

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Consider the story of 39 year-old Martin Pistorius who doctors believed was in a PVS. Initially, he was sent home by these same doctors to die. If not for his parents, who unselfishly cared for and loved him for more than 10 years, he never would have been afforded the opportunity to recover.

And recover he has.

In fact, he has published a book about his incredible experience, recounting the years where he was completely aware of everything going on around him, but unable to communicate. Pistorius is now talking about all of the conversations he heard from those caring for him, having normal thought processes, and being fully aware of his surroundings, all while doctors believed it couldn’t be possible.

Moreover, he never made mention that “he didn’t want to live in that condition”. Words, it seems, that are used constantly in our society to justify killing these persons.

Especially striking was the reaction from those at NBC Today, who had the exclusive to interview Mr. Pistorius. With Matt Lauer leading the charge, he opened the segment saying, “a story that is really going to make you think about what it means to be alive.” And once the segment concluded, it was Lauer and his colleagues, who were practically in tears, visibly touched by Pistorius’ story.

However, it was these same media types who were passing judgment on my parents, questioning their motives as to why they would want to provide the same compassion, the same care for their daughter as Pistorius’ parents did for him.

If confronted, most in the media will be sure to assume that Terri could not have been like Pistorius. First, it shouldn’t matter: A human being is a human being. But why should we assume that Terri was any different than Martin Pistorius? In fact, based on the reports of the neurologists who examined Terri and the 40 affidavits by health care professionals submitted to the court, Terri was experiencing some level of awareness. That was certainly what my family and others saw at her bedside.

Undoubtedly, if Pistorius’ parents wanted to end their son’s life, Lauer and all of his mass media friends would have been the first ones in line to agree with the parents. The hypocrisy is extraordinary.

Pistorius is not the first to emerge from this faulty and lethally dangerous PVS diagnosis. Tragically, it is impossible to know how many people who have been incorrectly diagnosed as being in a PVS – but were completely aware, unable to communicate to their loved ones – had their food and water removed, leaving them to die mercilessly by dehydration and starvation.

So we continue to raise deep concerns about the cruel way we are killing those on death row, and at the same time we do everything we can to convince the general public that the daily killing of those with brain injuries and other medically vulnerable people by starving and dehydrating them to death is a death with “dignity”.

Stories like Martin Pisotrious’ are yet another example of how little we know about the brain. And it should remind every single one of us what it means to love unconditionally; something it seems we have forgotten how to do.