Terri Schiavo

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(HOST) Along with the rest of the world, commentator Madeleine Kunin has been trying to understand and come to terms with the case of Terri Schiavo.

(KUNIN) There is nothing more tragic than the death of a loved one, and I speak as one of the millions who have agonized over the life and death debate about Terri Schiavo.

My first reaction to the emergency law that Congress passed – and the president was awakened to sign in the middle of the night – was that the federal government had no business interfering in a state judicial decision. What were they doing by passing a law that applies only to one person? And what precedent does that set? Were they simply appealing to the religious right by taking sides in a wrenching debate between Terri’s husband and her parents about whether she should continue living in her vegatative state?

After my original distress with the politicizing of what should have been a family and medical decision, I realized that Terri Schiavo has done us all a great favor by her 15 years of silence. She has brought a debate out into the open which needs to be aired, not only in public, but also in private: each one of us must deliberate about how we want to die; we must discuss this with our loved ones; and we must, above all, put our wishes into writing in the form of a living will.

Do we want life to be sustained at all costs, or do we want to have what some have termed “a good death”, which could avoid unnecessary suffering? These questions are extraordinarily complex and emotional. And even with a living will, the answers may not be straightforward. But at the very least, a written document expressing the living person’s vision of how he or she wants to die will provide guidance for a family. If the family is divided, with parents on one side and the spouse on the other, a legal document could be decisive.

While few may wish to take advantage of a further step – help from a physician to help a patient die when the situation is hopeless and pain is unbearable – this option is now being given serious consideration. For many terminally ill patients in pain, knowing the option is there is a comfort. Yes, suicide must be a last and rare decision, made only under the most carefully monitored circumstances.

After watching the brutal tug of war over Terri Schiavo’s life, we can no longer pretend that we all will “go gentle into that good night,” to take a line from Dylan Thomas. But if we are not to “rage against the dying of the light”, we must act now: prepare ourselves and our families as best we can for what we can only hope will be a good death.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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