Closing the Schiavo case: an analysis of legal reasoning

J Palliat Med. 2006 Oct;9(5):1145-63. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1145.


The conflict surrounding Terri Schiavo, whom Florida's courts had determined wished not to be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state, played out on a national stage. The dispute between Schiavo's husband and parents engulfed America's legislative, executive, and judicial systems, raising profound questions about the laws and policies that govern advance directives. In this paper, we offer an analysis of the legal reasoning in Schiavo and offer predictions about the case's likely impact on law and policy in the future. We reviewed an extensive collection of case materials that included consensus definitions of persistent vegetative state, media reports, court decisions and briefs, legal chronologies, guardian reports, and Schiavo's autopsy report. We also reviewed cases cited as sources for legal reasoning used in Schiavo, including Quinlan, Cruzan, and Browning. We also examined the political, cultural, and media factors that affected the conflict. Based upon these reviews, we identified the legal reasoning that decided the Schiavo conflict. We found that Florida's constitutional right to privacy, a principle that shaped the Florida statutory and case law, guided the courts' consistent rulings. The conflict that characterized the case reflected profound differences in American politics rather than a failure of the medical and/or legal systems. The outcome of the Schiavo case remained consistent with established Florida statutory and case law, and honored Terri Schiavo's state constitutional right to privacy. Although Schiavo may not affect advance directive law and policy in palliative medicine immediately, evidence suggests it has already increased interest in creating living wills.

Publication types

  • Legal Case

MeSH terms

  • Advance Directives / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Conflict, Psychological
  • Culture
  • Female
  • Florida
  • Humans
  • Mass Media
  • Persistent Vegetative State*
  • Politics
  • Privacy
  • Right to Die / legislation & jurisprudence*