Archive for Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Proposal inspired by Schiavo case stalls in Senate

March 30, 2005


— A bill making it harder to end a person's life-sustaining medical care in some cases has stalled in the Kansas Senate, frustrating supporters who had hoped Terri Schiavo's case would persuade legislators to approve it quickly.

The measure would require court-appointed guardians to obtain approval from a district court judge or jury before removing a feeding tube or withdrawing other medical treatment from someone under their care. It would apply when people don't have a living will or other legal document specifying their wishes.

Some legislators contend Kansas law already favors continuing life-sustaining treatment for people who are incapacitated or terminally ill. But advocates of the proposal argue Kansas law doesn't adequately protect disabled Kansans who need feeding tubes, kidney dialysis or other medical treatment to survive.

The House approved the proposal last week, and senators could have voted on it this week. But Senate President Steve Morris sent the bill to committee, a delay that could prevent its passage this year.

"It's a pretty important issue that needs some discussion and not just getting rubber-stamped," Morris, R-Hugoton, said Tuesday.

Supporters said legislators should move quickly and had a Statehouse news conference to build pressure.

Among the participants was Tammy Coleman, a 43-year-old Blue Springs, Mo., woman, who spent three years in a hospital with a feeding tube after a 1987 car wreck. Coleman, who has lived on her own for 12 years, described the proposal as important for protecting the disabled.

Rocky Nichols, executive director of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas, said current law reflects a long-standing bias against the disabled.

"That bias says, 'Why would you want to live like that?"' Nichols said after the news conference. "Well, that isn't for me to decide or you to decide. That's for the person with the disability to decide."

Nichols' group has been working on a proposal for months, but he and other supporters said the Schiavo case makes the issue compelling.

"The Terri Schiavo case points out that we have a problem with our Kansas statutes," Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, said before the news conference.

In Florida on Tuesday, the 41-year-old Schiavo was in her 12th day without a feeding tube. State and federal courts have sided with her husband, who sought successfully to have the tube removed, and against her parents, who want it reinserted. Schiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990.

In Kansas, a legal guardian can withdraw life-sustaining treatment if two doctors, two ethics committees, or one of each, certify that a person is in a vegetative state or cannot live without artificial means. There's no judicial review if the guardian obtains the necessary documents and the person under care hasn't specified their wishes in writing.

Under the bill, such cases would go to district court, with the guardian and the person under their care having separate attorneys. The attorney for the patient or disabled Kansan could seek a jury trial, in which a unanimous verdict would be required.

"I believe we ought to err on the side of life," Attorney General Phill Kline, a supporter of the bill, said during an interview. "There's a difference between prolonging death and actively providing for death."

The Senate can overrule Morris' decision by pulling the bill out of committee, but that requires 24 votes as opposed to the 21 votes needed to pass legislation, in the 40-member chamber.

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