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Feeding Tube Law Declared Unconstitutional

A Florida woman died nearly two weeks after doctors, under court order, removed her feeding tube for the third and final time. The woman’s parents suffered a string of legal setbacks after the removal of the tube, both in state and federal courts, trying to get her feeding tube reconnected. President George W. Bush and Congress intervened in a failed attempt to prolong her life.

Florida Supreme Court Rules Feeding Tube Law Unconstitutional

In September 2004, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a controversial law that gave the governor the power to keep a woman on a feeding tube was unconstitutional. In doing so, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a June 2004 decision by which a lower court judge had overturned the feeding tube law. That appeal was later denied without comment.

At the center of the controversy was a Florida woman, who was brain damaged and had been in a persistent vegetative state since 1990. She could breathe on her own but could not eat or drink; she received food and water by way of feeding tubes. Wishing to have the feeding tubes removed, her husband, who was also her legal guardian, contended that she would not have wanted to be kept alive by the use of artificial nutrition and hydration. The husband was involved in a well-publicized battle with the woman’s parents, who sought to prevent the removal of the feeding tubes. Questions surrounded the wishes of the woman, who did not have a living will. The lawsuit led to discussion of right-to-die issues, as well as the right to privacy.

Florida courts determined that the woman would not have wanted to be kept alive through artificial means. These courts ordered the removal of the tubes. Despite the court rulings, the Florida Legislature passed the special law in October 2003. The law, which applied only to the woman, gave the governor the power to intervene in decisions relating to her medical care. When the governor ordered the reinsertion of the feeding tubes, the woman’s husband challenged the action in court. In that lawsuit, the husband claimed that the law was unconstitutional.

Feeding Tube Law Improperly Delegated Legislative Power to Governor

Agreeing with the woman’s husband, the lower court judge wrote that the feeding tube law was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power. The judge further added that the law impermissibly allowed the governor to “summarily deprive Florida citizens of their constitutional right to privacy.” The judge said the rule allowed the governor to substitute his personal judgment and discretion for that of a patient, thus depriving an individual of the right to privacy of his or her own medical decisions. Civil rights advocates called the decision a victory for privacy rights.

Three months later, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously decided that the law violated the separation of powers provisions set forth in the United States Constitution. Specifically, the Florida Supreme Court held that the law encroached on the power of the judiciary and improperly delegated legislative power to the governor. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case.

Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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