The Blog

A "Painless" Death?

Michael Schiavo insists that dehydration is "the most natural way to die." It's more like torture.

11:00 PM, Nov 11, 2003 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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BEYOND THE TERRI SCHIAVO CASE, it is undisputed that conscious cognitively disabled patients are dehydrated in nursing homes and hospitals throughout the country almost as a matter of routine. Dr. Cranford, for example, openly admitted in his Wendland testimony that he removes feeding tubes from conscious patients. Thus, many other people may also have experienced the agony described by Adamson and worse, given that dehydrating to death goes on for about a week longer than she experienced.

AT THIS POINT, defenders of removing feeding tubes from people with profound cognitive disabilities might claim that whatever painful sensations dehydration may cause, these patients receive palliating drugs to ensure that their deaths are peaceful. But note: Adamson either did not receive such medications, or if she did, they didn't work. Moreover, because these disabled people usually can't communicate, it is impossible to know precisely what they experience. Thus, when asked in a deposition what he would do to prevent Robert Wendland from suffering during his dehydration, Dr. Cranford responded that he would give morphine but that the dose would be "arbitrary" because "you don't know how much he's suffering, you don't know how much aware he is . . . You're guessing at the dose." At trial, Cranford suggested he might have to put Wendland into a coma, a bitter irony considering that he had struggled over many months to regain consciousness.

The time has come to face the gut wrenching possibility that conscious cognitively disabled people whose feeding tubes are removed--as opposed to patients who are actively dying and choose to stop eating--may die agonizing deaths. This, of course, has tremendous relevance in the Terri Schiavo case and many others like it. Indeed, the last thing anyone wants is for people to die slowly and agonizingly of thirst, desperately craving a refreshing drink of orange Gatorade they know will never come.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an attorney and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. His current book is the revised and updated "Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder."

Correction appended 11/13/03: The article originally stated that Kate Adamson had been deprived of nourishment in an attempt to end her life. In fact, the dehydration was being done in attempt to alleviate a bowel obstruction. The painful surgery Adamson refers to was originally referred to as surgery to insert a feeding tub. It was actually surgery to remove the bowel obstruction, which is a more involved procedure.