The Cruzans' ordeal

December 27, 1990

At long last, the ordeal of the Cruzan family of Missouri has ended; Nancy Cruzan is legally dead.

In her family's view, Nancy has been dead since 1983, when an automobile accident left a vibrant young woman of 25 in an irreversibly comatose state. Her case came to national attention because Missouri had one of the nation's most stringent standards for determining what an incompetent patient's decision would be in regard to life-prolonging medical care.

She left no written indication of her wishes, and the testimony of close associates was not deemed "clear and convincing" evidence of what she would want done. But since that decision was announced, three other friends have come forward to testify to conversations on the subject with Cruzan. Her medical condition deteriorated to the point that her physician described her existence as "a living hell," and the state finally dropped its opposition to the family's request to withhold feeding.

As the Cruzan case played itself out in the legal arena, thousands of families in similar situations have been quietly reaching their own accords with doctors and hospitals. It is important to have public policies to guide these decisions, but it isn't likely that many states would want to put as high a premium on "life" in any condition as has Missouri.

The Cruzan case also helped to point up the connection between abortion opponents, who place an absolute value on pre-natal life, and those who see withholding medical technology as murder. Six days after the judge's decision, about 25 protesters attempted to break into Cruzan's room, presumably hoping to surgically reimplant the feeding tube into her abdomen. That ugly spectacle followed the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force's preposterous accusation that the judge had set in place "the cornerstone of a full-scale euthanasia program."

Tell that to the Cruzans, who by all accounts are a loving family, and who have faced not only the tragedy of losing their daughter but also the glare of publicity in trying to do what they thought was best for her.

The tragedy which befell the Cruzan family was not Nancy's technical death yesterday; it was the ordeal they were put through since she really died eight years ago. If they can find any comfort in their time of sorrow, let it be to spare other families the ordeal they went through.

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