The Right to Life

By Mat Wadsworth

“Today, I signed into law a bill that will allow Federal courts to hear a claim by or on behalf of Terri Schiavo for violation of her rights relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids, or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life. In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life. This presumption is especially critical for those like Terri Schiavo who live at the mercy of others. I appreciate the bipartisan action by the Members of Congress to pass this bill. I will continue to stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans, including those with disabilities.”

– Statement of President George W. Bush on signing P.L. 109-3 titled “An Act For the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo.”

In 2005, the US Congress passed a bill to save one woman’s life when her husband decided to take her off life support after she had been in a persistent vegetative state for fifteen years. A short six years later, a crowd at a Republican presidential debate cheered the hypothetical idea of letting a young man without health insurance die even though he had a curable condition. That concept became a starkreality for a young man in Phoenix, Arizona who was told to seek treatment in Mexico because he did not qualify for health insurance in the United States.

Twenty-three-year-old Jesus Cornelio suddenly collapsed on a soccer field on September 19. He was stricken by a heart embolism, and his brain went without oxygen for ten minutes. As a result, he suffered severe brain damage and slipped into a coma. He is on life support, has some brain activity, and obeys basic commands. A week and $120,000 later, Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center told him and his family to get out.

Mr. Cornelio only recently became a legal resident of the US. As a result, he does not qualify for AHCCCS, Arizona’s medicaid system because it requires that beneficiaries be citizens for at least five years. He has no health insurance. His family cannot pay the astronomical hospital bills. The state is unwilling to pay. No neighbors, friends, or churches have come through to pay for Mr. Cornelio, as Ron Paul suggested they would during the recent tea party debate. And, Banner Good Samaritan, despite its name, is running a business, not a charity.

Good Samaritan told Mr. Cornelio’s twenty-three-year-old wife, Evelyn Cordelia, that her options were to pay up, take him to Mexico to seek treatment, or take him home to watch him die. According to Mr. Cornelio’s doctors, he can survive about four days without life support. A legal resident of the United States of America, who has lived here for most of his life, must go to Mexico to find a doctor who will help him. Otherwise, he faces a “starvation execution” according to presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Removing a feeding tube and sending someone home is an act of “barbarism” according to Congressional Republicans.

To be clear, Santorum and Congressional Republicans have not weighed in on this case, except perhaps for standing mute on the stage as a Tea Party audience cheered the idea of the government allowing the death of someone in Mr. Cornelio’s exact situation. However, Santorum and the Republican party vigorously weighed in on a similar issue just six years ago.

As most people likely remember, twenty-seven-year-old Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack, collapsed, and slipped into a coma in 1990.[1] After efforts to revive her failed and she slipped deeper into non-responsiveness, doctors declared her to be in a persistent vegetative state. Eight years later, in 1998, her husband, Michael Schiavo made a decision most people hope to never be faced with, and he asked doctors to remove his wife from life support. Mrs. Schiavo’s parents did not believe she would want to be removed from life support.

The now famous seven-year court battle ensued, including efforts by the state legislature to nullify court decisions, and an unprecedented bill rushed through congress ordering the federal courts to get involved. P.L. 109-3, “An Act for the Relief of the Parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo,” applied to only one person and ordered the federal courts to consider Schiavo’s case de novo, despite years of state court verdicts. Texas Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D) pointed out that eighteen state judges had already ruled that Schiavo would not want continued treatment.  The bill was so controversial among the limited government, personal freedom wing of the Republican party that all of five Republican congressmen voted against it. Ron Paul could not be bothered to vote on the issue.

In support of the bill, Virginia Representative Tom Davis (R) declared on the House floor that:

“What we are doing is providing Terri Schiavo the same legal protections that we afford a convicted criminal who has been sentenced to death. A Florida judge has issued an order that will have the effect of ending Ms. Schiavo’s life, so the least we can do is allow a federal court to review the matter. If we ensure murderers and rapists the benefit of a federal review, we should do it for this helpless woman.” (emphasis in original)

Despite these congressional efforts, the 11th circuit denied a temporary injunction to replace Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube on March 23, 2005.[2] Rick Santorum declared that in an exercise of “judicial tyranny” the courts “simply thumbed [their] nose at congress” by refusing the injunction. Finally, fifteen years after slipping into a coma and seven years after the beginning of legal proceedings to end her life, Mrs. Schiavo died on March 31, 2005.

The hypocrisy here is simply staggering.

It took a seven-year battle in state court, federal court, the state legislature, and the US Congress for Mrs. Schiavo to die, despite multiple courts finding clear and convincing evidence that she would not want to be kept alive on artificial life support.[3] She was finally allowed to die after spending fifteen years in a persistent vegetative state.

Mr. Cornelio was not given even fifteen days. He was not declared to be in a persistent vegetative state. He is still responsive, and no one has said that there is no hope of a recovery. There is no evidence that he would not want to be kept alive on artificial life support, and his wife and family are certainly not ready to make that declaration yet.

The lesson seems to be that if you have health insurance and/or money, you have to fight to die, despite clear wishes and over a decade of doctors saying there is no hope for recovery. If you have no money and no health insurance, you have to fight to live, despite having no clear wishes from the patient, clear wishes from the family to continue fighting, and no signs that you will not be able to recover.

If Mr. Cornelio had any form of insurance, Arizona law would ban the insurance company or anyone else from requiring an end of life directive that he not be kept alive by artificial means, regardless of the finances involved. His health care “surrogate,” who would presumably be his wife in this case, may act in what she considers to be his best wishes and may not legally be held financially liable for any decision on his behalf. Furthermore, the hospital is required to follow the instructions of Mr. Cornelio’s health care surrogate unless they directly contravene any explicit directive from the patient. The hospital is only allowed to consider patient directives above the decisions of the health care surrogate. Not the hospital’s interpretation of the patient’s best wishes, not finances, not convenience, only patient directives. Finally, even if Mrs. Cordelia decided to move Mr. Cornelio to Mexico, the hospital is required by law to continue providing him with life support until that transfer takes place. There is no time provision in the law to hurry along her decision or any planned transfer.

The point is that Arizona law is clear. Arizona is a state that recognizes the sanctity of human life and authorizes only those closest to a patient to make decisions about his life or death. Only the patient or his surrogate gets to make those decisions, not some bureaucrat working for the hospital, insurance company, bank, or AHCCCS.

Arizona “does not approve or authorize suicide, assisted suicide or mercy killing.” Only death for lack of funds, apparently.

Presidential candidate Rick Perry released a statement after the Tea Party sponsored debate at which the crowd cheered the idea of the state simply allowing someone like Mr. Cornelio to die. He was “taken aback” by the crowd’s reaction. “We’re the party of life,” he said. “We ought to be coming up with ways to save lives.”

It should not matter that Mr. Cornelio was brought here as an illegal immigrant as a child. It should not matter that he only became a legal resident and that he is not yet a citizen. According to Mr. Perry, “these kids showed up in our state by no fault of their own, some 2-3 years of age. And they’ve been in our schools, they’ve done their work, they’ve prepared themselves good, they want to be contributing members of society.”

Well, Mr. Perry, I’m sure Mr. Cornelio and his family would appreciate it if you would put your political might where your mouth is.


[1]Miriam Rosenblatt-Hoffman, The Schiavo Odyssey: A Tale of Two Legislative Reprieves, 7 Marq. Elder’s Advisor 357, 361 (2006).

[2]Schiavo ex rel. Schindler v. Schiavo, 403 F.3d 1223 (11th Cir. 2005).

[3]Joshua E. Perry, Biblical Biopolitics: Judicial Process, Religious Rhetoric, Terri Schiavo and Beyond, 16 Health Matrix 553, 578 (2006).

5 thoughts on “The Right to Life

  1. Wow. I like this so much, I’m posting it to my Facebook. Thanks for a great article, well researched, and well written.

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