Several things should be made clear in the case of Terri Schiavo, the poor woman who’s been in a vegetative state for 15 years and is now having her feeding tube removed at the behest of her husband and against the wishes of her parents.

First, this whole sorry mess would’ve been avoided if she’d simply had a Medical Directive (aka Living Will, Advance Directive, Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, etc.) instructing doctors and loved ones as to her wishes. A lot of people hear cases like these and think, “I sure wouldn’t want to be kept alive if I were in a vegetative state.” Nobody’s saying you have to, but you do need to fill out a form, or you’ll just be leaving the rest of us guessing. These documents weren’t all that well-known 15 years ago, but they are today, so if you don’t have one, get one.

Second, if you don’t have the above document, be careful who you marry. In most if not all cases, your spouse will have final say over your medical treatment if you’re incapacitated. In the Schiavo case, it may well be that husband Michael Schiavo has it right and that his wife Terri Schiavo, a Roman Catholic, would not wish to have her life prolonged. His motivation might be under less suspicion, however, if he wasn’t living with his girlfriend with whom he’s had a couple kids and if he didn’t stand to receive what’s left of the $1.2 million malpractice settlement from his wife’s poor medical care. (Michael Schiavo’s attorneys have received almost $490,000 of that settlement for their work in trying to have Terri’s feeding tube removed.)

Third, it’s worth noting that what constitutes a “vegetative state” is not nearly what most people imagine. The popular conception is that an individual in such a state appears to be sleeping 24/7 with no signs of consciousness. That is not the case. With Terri Schiavo, for example, she breathes on her own, opens her eyes at times, and laughs on occasion. There is little question that she’s brain-damaged and that she is bereft of most if not all of her higher brain functions. But it’s not like she’s sleeping all the time. (HealthLink has a good page on the difference between a coma and a persistent vegetative state.)

Finally, and here I come to the thing which I believe causes so many people anxiety in this case, the outcome for those in a persistent vegetative state is unknown. Medical literature is replete with “miracles” of those who’ve awoken from comas, who’ve returned to consciousness after years in vegetative states, and who’ve even been declared legally dead and somehow come back to life. In the absence of wishes to the contrary, why not give life and hope a chance? Since no Medical Directive exists and her own parents are willing to provide her care, it’s hard to understand what positive end is served by starving Terri Schiavo to death.