The Supreme Court was urged Wednesday to permit the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from a Missouri woman described as "an unconscious shell." But a state lawyer said the woman's parents have no constitutional right to order such action.
William Colby, a lawyer representing the parents of Nancy Cruzan, said if the permanently unconscious woman "was lucid for a moment and could come before this court," she would ask that a tube in her stomach providing food and water be removed."Her liberty interest is as important as her right to life in this case," Colby said. "She would choose liberty." Cruzan suffered severe brain damage in a Jan. 11, 1983, car crash. She lies in a hospital bed, her body rigid, her hands and feet constricted and bent into claw shapes.
But Assistant Attorney General Robert L. Presson said the parents have no constitutional right to precipitate their daughter's death.
"In this extraordinary situation, the decision should be made by a judicial body," Presson said, referring to a state court ruling that the feeding tubes must be retained.
Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, the Bush administration's top courtroom lawyer, supported Presson.
Starr urged the court to give states "wide latitude that reflects reasonably the wishes" of their citizens "in this highly sensitive and deeply vexing situation."
There is no constitutional right to choose to die in such cases that overrides a state's determination to require continued food and water for unconscious patients, Starr said.
The justices, preparing for their first "right-to-die" decision, asked extensive questions of the lawyers.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor asked whether a lower court that required the life-support treatment for Cruzan decided the case based on "the best interests of the patient?"
"I have been concerned because it's not clear what standard" the lower court set, she said.