Disabled Man’s Wife Decides It’s in His “Best Interest” to Starve Him to Death

Opinion   |   Bobby Schindler   |   Sep 6, 2017   |   11:08AM   |   Washington, DC

Earlier this year, I was contacted through the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network’s National Crisis Lifeline by a distraught family member. A woman wanted to end her disabled husband’s life.

As strange as it might sound, we receive these sorts of calls frequently through our National Crisis Lifeline—cases where family members seek any means possible to save the life of a loved one who is at-risk of denial of basic care.

The facts of this case were straightforward: the man at the center of this drama had acquired his disability in May 2015, when he experienced an anoxic brain injury. This brain injury left him dependent on others—namely his wife—for his care and medical decisions. As was the case with my sister, Terri, this man’s brain injury meant that he had forgotten how to swallow food and water and was consequently reliant on a feeding tube for nutrition and hydration.

Unfortunately, less than 18 months after his injury, his wife decided to deny him food and water by withdrawing his feeding tube and requesting he be moved to hospice to die. She believed that this would be in his best interest. Yet choosing to do this meant that her husband would ultimately die from profound dehydration and starvation over a matter of days or weeks. Her husband would die because he was disabled, in other words.

In response to this husband’s disability, his parents and siblings often visited him, and had even asked his wife if they might be allowed to bring him to live with one of them who was willing to provide the sort of care that she was not. Tragically, she refused.

The man’s birth family insisted that he was showing signs of cognition, that was responsive, and thus that he was a candidate for much needed therapy—something they were more than willing to provide. These members of his birth family loved him unconditionally, and wanted him to die naturally—whenever that would mean in the years to come, rather than by means of forcibly denying him food and water.

The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network’s National Crisis Lifeline was contacted by this man’s birth family when it became clear that his wife was intent on ending his life. We were able to identify an appropriate allied attorney who was able to step in, successfully appealing to the courts to stop the imminent denial of basic care. Critically, a neurologist was permitted to evaluate the condition of this man and assess his disability. Throughout this time, the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network did what it could to support this man and his birth family’s efforts.

Throughout this process, this man’s wife continued in her vigorous efforts to press forward and deny her husband food and water, going as far as to retain the services of an attorney who assisted Michael Schiavo in his own efforts to end the life of my sister, Terri.

Unfortunately, as this man’s case was proceeding through the courts, he passed away. Even worse, despite his death, his wife’s attorneys have chosen to keep the case active to obtain a final ruling from a judge to help them advance their denial-of-care agenda for future cases.

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It’s legal in every state to deny the basic care of food and water via feeding tube to a patient in need of that care. Because this barbaric practice is considered normal and is, in fact, commonplace, there are no hard numbers recorded to underscore just how many patients are deliberately starved and dehydrated to death each year.

However, if one were to consider a conservative estimate that one percent of the approximately 500,000 patients who receive food and water by means of feeding tubes are fatally denied care, that would equate to more than 5,000 patients every month who die from lack of the most basic care one can imagine. In my 12+ year experience with the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, I believe the true number is substantially higher.

We founded the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network to serve as many vulnerable patients as possible, and since 2005 have advocated for more than 2,500 such patients and families. It’s why we operate the National Crisis Lifeline to uphold essential qualities of human dignity—including the right to food and water, the presumption of the will to live, due process against denial of care, protection from euthanasia as a form of medicine, and access to rehabilitative care. We’re here for those in crisis.