Life Support Laws Strict in NY

By Hugo Kugiya
Staff Writer

October 21, 2003, 9:39 PM EDT

If Terri Schiavo resided in New York, where her mother's family is from, it is unlikely her husband would have succeeded in removing the feeding tube that has kept her alive for the last 13 years.

In part because of the political power of conservative religious leaders, state lawmakers said, the relatives of incapacitated patients in New York face some of the nation's strictest laws regarding the removal of life support.

In general, New York law recognizes only a patient's direct oral or written instructions, or those of a previously designated health-care proxy. A person designated as the proxy can order the removal of a feeding tube, but only if the patient specifically granted the person that power in a separate authorization on the proxy form.

If, as in Schiavo's case, a patient cannot communicate, left no will or instructions for her medical care, and did not appoint a proxy, relatives must provide clear and convincing evidence their loved one would not have wanted to be kept alive before life support is removed. In New York, patient advocates have said, that burden of proof can be unreasonably high.

In Schiavo's case, her husband and two in-laws testified in court they had casual conversations years ago on the subject of life support, and that Schiavo told them she would not have wanted to live on life support. New York law gives little weight to second-party oral testimony.

New York law is based largely on a 1988 court ruling by the New York State Court of Appeals. That year, the state's highest court ruled a feeding tube could not be removed from Mary O'Connor, a 77-year-old Westchester woman in a vegetative state. Her daughters, who wanted to halt feeding, said their mother made it clear to them she did not want to live on life support. But the Court of Appeals voted 4-3 in favor of the hospital, which wanted to continue feeding.

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