The Supreme Court was urged today 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."
But Assistant Atty. Gen. Robert L. Presson of Missouri 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?"
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told Colby, "You presume there is a liberty to die without clear and convincing evidence" of the patient's wishes.
In his presentation to the justices, Colby said of Cruzan, "She is an unconscious shell in a roomful of strangers for the rest of her life."
Cruzan, 32, has been in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state for almost seven years. Her parents, Joe and Joyce Cruzan, are asking the court to let them order removal of a surgically implanted tube providing her with food and water.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled doctors may not remove the tube.
Cruzan suffered severe brain damage in a Jan. 11, 1983, car crash.