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Germany

Europeans Reflect on Schiavo Case

The legislative and judicial battle over a Florida man's right to end his comatose wife's life has drawn some surprise reaction in Europe, where legal sympathy for euthanasia is widespread.

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Schiavo, seen in this 2001 video, has been comatose since 1990

On a continent where physician-assisted death is far more commonplace than in the United States, the case of Terri Schiavo has struck a chord.

Schiavo, who has been in a persistent vegetative state since collapsing in her home in 1990, has been at the center of a legal fight between her husband -- her legal guardian -- and her parents over her husband's right to end her life since 1998. Michael Schiavo went to court eight years ago for the right to remove her feeding tube, saying that she would have never wanted to live in such a state.

This past week, the US Congress forced the case from the Supreme Court, which had ruled in Michael Schiavo's favor, back to a Florida district court. The court on Tuesday denied Schiavo's parents the right to restore her feeding tube, a decision that will be appealed.

Holland: 2,000 assisted in death each year

European countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium allow physician-assisted death in various incarnations. In Holland alone, about 2,000 people die through assistance from their doctor each year. But Schiavo wouldn't be one of them.

Dutch laws, like those in Switzerland and Belgium, require that the patient clearly and insistently request death. Schiavo, had she ever requested death should she fall into a vegetative state, did not insist on it. For this reason, even relatively socially liberal groups, like the Union of Protestant Churches in Germany, or the German Medical Association, have not recommended removing Schiavo's feeding tube.

Question of recovery divides

"The patient's doctors are required to continue to treat her and to feed her, because it's not clear what will happen next with her illness," said Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe (photo, right), the head of the German Medical Association.

Deutsche Ärztetag

Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe (on the right) says doctors can't be sure that Schiavo won't recover


Doctors consulted by Michael Schiavo have testified in court that Terri will never recover from her state -- in which she cannot think or speak and is unaware of her surroundings. Doctors brought by her parents disagree and say it would be against Terri's religion, as a Roman Catholic, to die this way.

Hoppe said there have been cases "of people who lived for 20 years in a 'waking coma' and then later came back to consciousness. The patient is certainly not dead."

Dutch pave way for euthanasia legalization

Fifteen years ago, Holland had a case similar to Schiavo's, A judge allowed the husband of Ineke Stinissen, who had been in a coma for several years, to remove her feeding tube. She died of starvation, and her case paved the way for Holland's pro-euthanasia legislation.

In Germany, Schiavo's case would have gone to court much in the same way it did in the US. German law forbids doctors to actively assist in a patient's suicide but allows them to passively allow death if the patient clearly wills it. But Ruth Mattheis, the former head of the medical association and a doctor for more than 50 years said she could not remember such a case every making it to trial.

"Quite often, families addressed me and asked for help, mostly families who wanted to stop nutrition (where) the doctors opposed it," she said. "In such situations, I always tried to bring both parties together to find a solution."

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