Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Force-Feeding Prisoners Is Unlike Patient Removal from a Feeding Tube?

As someone who watches the legal battles surrounding patient removal from artificial nutrition and hydration, the evolution of the directives used by Catholic health care (which state now that the decision to remove ANH is up to the hospital and not the patient), and who sits at the bedside of dying patients who wish to stop eating and drinking and often do, I find the occasions of state-ordered force-feeding of inmates extremely pertinent to end-of-life health care discussions.

Of course the thread is state sanction of what we ingest, what we do with our bodies (think drug laws, abortion, aid in dying, motorcycle helmet laws, the list goes on). Do we agree that force feeding a death row inmate is suicide prevention? Is prevention of the individual's suicide so that the state can kill him? Or rather, put another way, is the state prolonging the man's death; not allowing him the privilege of taking his own life? (Be sure to watch the dated, partisan but nonetheless riveting 1981 TV miniseries Masada, which recounts the tale of 900 Jews besieged in a mountaintop fortress by the Romans. The Jews commit suicide in order to "defeat" the soldiers and have since become legendary heroes. Or compare the heroism of soldiers who put themselves in harm's way in battle. Or kamikazee pilots in WWII. Or suicide bombers.)

Arguments for force feeding a death row inmate could be made--for his soul, for his quality of life behind bars, for his need to pay for his crimes. And surely he could be depressed, as one can imagine death row inmates are, just as terminal patients are. But it is in these cases that particular troublesome aspects of refusing patient removal of ANH are highlighted.

And so, from Birmingham, Alabama, the story of a death row inmate who has stopped eating and showering and has been ordered force-fed by a federal judge. The details of it make me ask how as a society we wish to define dignity and for whom we wish to (p)reserve it.

A federal judge has ordered a man who faces the death penalty on federal charges that he killed two tellers during a 2007 bank robbery in Bessemer be force-fed and bathed at the Shelby County jail.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John E. Ott, in an order filed Monday, stated that he had learned from the U.S. Marshal that William Merriweather has been refusing food and to take a shower for an extended period. "The court has been monitoring the situation for some time," according to Ott's order.

On Monday, Ott stated that he had informed Merriweather's defense attorneys of "the need for medical intervention under the circumstances."

Merriweather's attorneys, Emory Anthony and Richard Jaffe, argue in court documents that Merriweather is incompetent to stand trial.

The two attorneys stated in documents filed Monday in response to the judge's proposed order that Merriweather was "clearly not competent" and agreed to a temporary order of no more than 14 days permitting the Shelby County Jail to take reasonable steps "to ensure that Mr. Merriweather's health is not further compromised."

Ott ordered the Shelby County Jail to take steps to make sure Merriweather's health is not further compromised, including forcibly feeding and bathing him for a period not to exceed 14 days. Before the end of that time the U.S. Marshal is to be notified by jail personnel of Merriweather's medical status "and his compliance or non-compliance with medical and jail personnel directions."

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