Power of attorney document available

By  Gillian Girodat, The Catholic Register
  • April 24, 2005
In response to the death of 41-year-old Terri Schiavo, Canada's Euthanasia Prevention Coalition is reminding the public of its power of attorney document aimed at preserving life.
Schiavo, who suffered severe brain damage in 1990, died March 31, 13 days after having her feeding tube removed. Able to breathe on her own, she required the feeding tube to keep her alive. Her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, and her parents  were involved in a drawn-out legal dispute since 1998, with Schiavo stating his wife would never want to be kept alive if she were in a vegetative state. He asked the courts to remove the feeding tube so she could die.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, says this confusion can be prevented with a power of attorney document that spells out who can make decisions regarding care and medical treatment for an individual. There are a number of power of attorney documents available through law and government offices.

"What makes ours different is it is aimed to protect people," Schadenberg said.

The focus, Schadenberg emphasizes, is respecting and preserving life. Specifically, Schadenberg says other documents fail to identify food and fluid as wanted and necessary unless nearing death or demonstrated as a burden in any way.

"We consider it ordinary care," Schadenberg said. "But most medical caregivers consider food and fluids a medical treatment."

And that makes it optional.

In the Schiavo case, the removal of her feeding tube indicated that her receiving food was extraordinary care. But according to the coalition, Schiavo's death is considered euthanasia because she was intentionally dehydrated to death, not for palliative reasons but because she was cognitively disabled.

"Inserting a feeding tube is a medical act," Schadenberg said. "But when it is inserted, it is no longer a medical act. It's not extraordinary. It's ordinary. It's very normal."

The power of attorney document only comes into effect when individuals are not able to make decisions themselves. Schadenberg says it is assumed that family can do so for them, but this is not necessarily true. Without the document, the law does not say the spouse is automatically the power of attorney.

"This eliminates confusion as to who can make the decisions," he said. "This document sets out the parameters of what's acceptable."

In the few years that it has been available, the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has sold nearly 1,000 power of attorney documents. The document can be used anywhere in Canada.

But, Schadenberg adds, the death of Schiavo goes beyond a wake-up call to the public to have a power of attorney document.

"Hopefully Terri's death will result in legislation being enacted to protect people who are cognitively disabled from similar acts of death by dehydration," Schadenberg said.

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