Advance Healthcare Directive Real Life: Terri Schiavo

An Advance Healthcare Directive is a legal document that allows an individual to designate someone else, usually a family member or a trusted friend, to make medical decisions on their behalf if they become unable to do so themselves. The Directive also allows you to confirm your preferences for various potential medical situations, such as the well-known “end-of-life” decision. There are various names for this document such as medical power of attorney and Living Will, but, in California, the Advance Healthcare Directive is most common. 

The Directive is an essential tool for individuals who want to ensure that their healthcare wishes are respected even if they are unable to convey their wishes due to a legal incapacity. By designating a trusted agent to make medical decisions on their behalf, individuals can have peace of mind knowing that their wishes will be followed, even if they are unable to speak for themselves. People began to take more notice of healthcare directives and medical powers of attorney due to several high-profile legal cases. One such case is that of Terri Schiavo.

History of the Case

The case around Terri Schiavo was a highly publicized legal and ethical dispute that centered around the end-of-life care for Terri Schiavo, a woman who suffered severe brain damage and was in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for 15 years.

In 1990, at the age of 26, Terri Schiavo collapsed at her home in Florida and was rushed to the hospital. She had experienced cardiac arrest and had been without oxygen for several minutes, which caused severe brain damage. After several months in a coma, she was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state, which meant that she was awake but not aware of her surroundings or herself.

Terri did not have any form of legal planning in place. Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, was appointed as her legal guardian (in California, this would be a conservator) and made decisions about her medical care. He later petitioned the court to have her feeding tube removed, arguing that Terri would not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state. Terri’s parents disagreed and fought to keep her alive, arguing that Terri was conscious and that her condition could improve with therapy.

The legal battle over Terri’s care lasted for years, involving multiple court rulings, appeals, and interventions by the Florida legislature and Congress. The courts repeatedly upheld Michael Schiavo’s right to make decisions about his wife’s care and agreed that Terri would not want to be kept alive in her condition.

In 2005, after the feeding tube had been removed twice before and reinserted due to court orders, the Florida courts again ruled in favor of Michael Schiavo and ordered that the feeding tube be removed permanently. Despite last-minute interventions by the Florida legislature and Congress, the feeding tube was removed, and Terri Schiavo died on March 31, 2005, 13 days after the removal of the feeding tube.

The Terri Schiavo case sparked a national debate about end-of-life care and the right to die. Supporters of Terri’s parents argued that her life should have been preserved at all costs, while supporters of Michael Schiavo argued that his wife’s wishes should have been respected, and that she should not have been kept alive in a vegetative state. The case also highlighted the importance of having advanced directives, such as living wills and medical power of attorney, in place to ensure that an individual’s wishes are followed regarding end-of-life care.

Lessons to Be Learned

Several key lessons can be learned from this matter, including the following:

1. Advance directives: Advance directives, such as living wills and medical power of attorney, could have clarified Terri Schiavo’s wishes regarding end-of-life care. If Terri Schiavo had a living will or advance directive that clearly stated her wishes regarding end-of-life care, it would have made the decision-making process easier for her family, caregivers, and medical professionals to determine her preferences for medical treatment and would have avoided the legal and emotional battles that ensued. Further, it would have ensured that Terri’s wishes were carried out instead of leaving it up for debate and a decision by one judge.

2. Communication: If Terri Schiavo had communicated her wishes about end-of-life care to her family or friends, this could have provided valuable guidance in making decisions about her care and 

3. Respect for individual autonomy: In the case of Terri Schiavo, it is essential to respect individual autonomy and the right to make decisions about one’s own medical care. It is important to honor an individual’s wishes even if they may differ from those of their family members or medical professionals.

If you want to learn more about getting an advance directive or would like to have yours reviewed, please contact us at 424-242-5021 or at for a complimentary consultation.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. For specific guidance regarding your situation, please contact an attorney.