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Erring on the side of life: the case of Terri Schiavo
  1. D A Merrell
  1. Dr Don Merrell, Department of English and Philosophy, Arkansas State University, P.O. Box 1890, State University, Arkansas 72467, USA; merrelldon{at}; dmerrell{at}


In debates over life and death it is often said that one should err on the side of caution—that is, on the side of life. In the light of the recent case of Terri Schiavo, it is explained how the “err-on-the-side-of-life” argument proceeds, and an objection to it is offered.

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  • Competing interests: None.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

  • i I owe a debt of gratitude to an anonymous reviewer of this paper for helpful comments and suggestions on this point.

  • ii Furthermore, the greater the value we attach to a person’s right to determine the way they shall die, the worse is the harm when that right is taken away. Obviously the Schindlers believe this, otherwise we would have no explanation for why they believed that Schiavo should be kept alive. They believed that Schiavo did not want to die and, hence, removal of the feeding tube meant that Schiavo’s end-of-life wishes were not being respected.

  • iii Though Schiavo had no living will, a trial was held in January 2000 to establish her end-of-life wishes. Eighteen witnesses gave testimony concerning her desires regarding life-prolonging procedures, with the court finding that she was in a persistent vegetative state and that she had made declarations to the effect that she would not have wanted to endure in that unfortunate state—that is, she would not have wanted a feeding tube (Schiavo v Schindler).1 This decision was upheld by the Florida Second District Court of Appeal (Schindler and Schindler v Schiavo).6