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Euthanasia and Terri Schiavo

What did Terri experience during death by dehydration?

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Process of death by dehydration:

There is a consensus that Interrupting a person's supply of food and liquids causes death by dehydration within about 15 days. There have been very rare cases where a patient survived into their the start of their fourth week. Terri died after 12 days. Lack of fluid causes the kidneys to produce less urine. Eventually, they completely stop filtering toxins from the body.

Deborah Volker, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Texas has written extensively on end-of-life issues. She explained that toxins build up in the body. The body's chemical balances involving potassium, sodium and calcium etc. are disrupted. This disrupts the electrical system that triggers the action of muscles, including the heart. Eventually the heart stops beating, and the patient dies. 1

Physicians and religious organizations have expressed conflicting beliefs about the symptoms that Terri would experience during death by dehydration. It appears that at least some individuals or groups are knowingly misrepresenting the facts.

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Beliefs of physicians:

Medical and religious information sources disagree about the symptoms which Terri Schiavo felt as she continued to be deprived of liquid:

bullet Dr. Linda Emanuel, founder of the Education for Physicians in End-of-Life Care Project at Northwestern University said: "From the data that is available, it is not a horrific thing at all," She said that since Terri Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, she is "probably not experiencing anything at all subjectively." She would have no discomfort. 1
bullet Dr. Sean Morrison, a professor of geriatrics and palliative care at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York said: "They generally slip into a peaceful coma. It's very quiet, it's very dignified -- it's very gentle." 1
bullet Kenneth Goodman, director of bioethics at the University of Miami School of Medicine and a co-director of the Florida Bioethics Network said that the "removal of feeding tubes is a common practice." He said that there is no pain involved in dying of dehydration and/or starvation.: "Soon after nourishment is denied to the brain, it begins producing chemicals that act as a natural anesthetic. She is not going to feel a thing. The artificial pain medication that Schiavo will receive is to make sure that if there is [pain], it is adequately handled." 1
bullet However, at least one physician disagrees. He appears to believe that Terri is conscious and felt pain, even though her brain's higher functions had ceased functioning:. According to Dr. Lieberman, at UCLA Medical Center, Terri was expected to suffer tremendously. He said: "When the body is starved it has to 'eat itself' in order to provide energy to continue vital functions. Weight loss can reach 50%, meaning Terri will become a living skeleton. Eventually, her heart and lungs will fail – unless she is first overcome by infection due to compromised immunity. Total starvation is generally fatal in 8-12 weeks. By denying Terri water as well, she would die sooner – perhaps within 2 weeks, after anxiety, seizures, falling blood pressure, confusion and coma. Two weeks is a long time to suffer." 2

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Beliefs of conservative Protestant groups:

Conservative Protestant groups generally teach that death by dehydration is extremely painful and gruesome. They seem to assume that Terri Schiavo was capable of feeling pain and would be given no pain medication or other treatments to avoid any discomfort that she might have felt during the process of dying:

bullet Operation Rescue, a fundamentalist Christian group which opposes equal rights for gays and access to abortion, described death by starvation as "horrible." They write: "The moment her feeding tube is removed, Terri Schiavo will begin a long, slow, painful death by starvation and dehydration. WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW to rescue Terri from her cruel executioners. They’ve already tried to kill her once before, and she fought to stay alive. But this may be the last chance Terri gets.....Medical experts all agree that death by starvation and dehydration is perhaps the most painful, the most tortuous, and the most agonizing way to die. Let’s face it: The human body must have water and nutrition! Just try going for one day without ANY food or liquids—and see how you feel. You won’t like it!" 3
bullet The Family Research Council said that: "Death from dehydration and starvation is a brutal and gruesome form of death. The tongue and lips crack and bleed. The eyes recede into their orbits. The skin becomes so sensitive it peels off upon firm contact. The lining of the nose can crack and bleed. Dried brain cells can cause convulsions. There is nothing necessarily dignified about dying from the slow and torturous process of being starved to death." 4
bullet Dr. David Stevens. executive director of the conservative Christian Medical and Dental Associations said that initial effects of the lack of hydration will include extreme thirst, nausea, and cramping. Her skin will dry out and become wrinkled as fluids are drawn from the skin to hydrate the organs. He said: "She's likely to become dizzy and begin to have cramping in her arms and legs. That's because her electrolytes – her sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes in her blood – start getting out of whack because of lack of fluids....She'll see decreased secretions. If she tries to cry, she won't be able to make tears very well, if at all. Her mouth will become dry and saliva thick. You can have cracking of the (mucous membranes) of the mouth and lips as they dry out. People often get headaches, then (become) lethargic and finally go into coma. It actually can cause seizures. As it progressively gets worse, what happens (are) the physical signs. Her blood pressure will drop, her heart rate will pick up. She'll actually, ultimately go into shock. You just don't have enough fluid to keep your blood pressure up, and it drops so low, and that sometimes can be a terminal event, or an arrhythmia of her heart. Her blood will get thicker. Sometimes, people who are severely dehydrated will actually have strokes just because the blood gets so thick that it clots. It's not a pretty picture....If they sedate her, she could be semi-conscious or unconscious while this is going on. It's not a very pleasant experience, unlike what the Hemlock Society and other groups try to make you believe." 5

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References used:

  1. John Schwartz, "Experts: Schiavo would die peacefully. Medical authorities say pulling feeding tube would lead to death by dehydration," The New York Times, 2005-MAR-21, at:
  2. Michael Wright, "Terri Schiavo: Starvation & Dehydration Not a Pretty Picture," NewsReleaeWire, 2005-MAR-15, at:
  3. "Voice for Terri: Pro-life leaders working together to save Terri Schiavo," Operation Rescue, at:
  4. John Stemberger, "The Terri Schiavo Controversy - Facts, Myths and Christian Perspectives," Family Research Council, undated, at:
  5. Jeff Johnson, "Christian Medical Expert Disputes Secular Views in Schiavo Case," LifeWay, at:

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Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics > Euthanasia > Terri Schiavo > here

or: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Suicide menu > Euthanasia > Terri Schiavo > here

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Copyright © 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-MAR-21
Latest update: 2005-MAR-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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