In the wake of the Terri Schiavo case and the recent autopsy report, it’s worth noting that Terri Schiavo’s state of consciousness was legally irrelevant to whether she could be starved to death or not. In 1995, Marjorie Nighbert was starved/dehydrated to death on the strength of a power of attorney, even though she was able to speak and literally begging for food.
As Wesley J. Smith wrote,
The worst of these cases of which I am aware is the tragic dehydration of Marjorie Nighbert. Marjorie was a successful businesswoman until a stroke left her disabled. She was unable to swallow safely, but not terminally ill. She was moved from Alabama to a nursing home in Florida where she would receive rehabilitation to help her relearn how to chew and swallow without danger of aspiration. A feeding tube was inserted to ensure that she was properly nourished during her recovery.
Marjorie had once told her brother Maynard that she didn’t want a feeding tube if she were terminally ill. Despite the fact that she was not dying, Maynard believed that she had meant that she would rather die by dehydration than live the rest of her life using a feeding tube. Accordingly, he ordered all of Marjorie’s nourishment stopped.
As she was slowly dehydrating to death, Marjorie began to beg the staff for food and water. Distraught nurses and staff members, not knowing what else to do, surreptitiously snuck her small amounts. One staffer — who was later fired for the deed — blew the whistle, leading to a hurried court investigation and a temporary restraining order requiring that Marjorie receive nourishment.
Circuit Court Judge Jere Tolton appointed attorney William F. Stone to represent Marjorie and gave him twenty-four hours to determine whether she was competent to rescind the general power of attorney she had given to Maynard before her stroke. After the rushed investigation, Stone was forced to report that Marjorie was not competent at that time. (She had, after all, been intentionally malnourished for several weeks.) Stone particularly noted that he had been unable to determine whether she had been competent at the time the dehydration commenced.
With Stone’s report in hand, Judge Tolton ruled that the dehydration should be completed! Before an appalled Stone could appeal, Marjorie died on April 6, 1995.
Indeed, the Washington Post reported on January 5, 1997,
Marjorie Nighbert, a 76-year-old Florida woman, was hospitalized in 1996 after a stroke. Before her hospital admission, she signed an advance directive that no “heroic measures” should be employed to save her life. On the basis of that directive and at the request of her family, the hospital denied Nighbert’s requests for food and water, according to reports in the Northwest Florida Daily News. A hurriedly convened hospital ethics committee ruled that she was “not medically competent to ask for such a treatment.” Until her death more than 10 days later, Nighbert was restrained in her bed to prevent her from raiding other patients’ food trays.
The legal theory on which Terri Schiavo was put to death was identical to that used for Marjorie Nighbert — not legally competent, and once said she wouldn’t want tubes.