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The Right to Live or Die : Cruzan Case Is a Flash Point for Both Anti-Abortion, Right-to-Die Groups

January 10, 1991|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They arrived with their pup tents, their placards and their shared conviction.

Before it ended, close to 100 people would come to the small southwest Missouri town of Mt. Vernon for what they said was a single purpose--to save a life.

They came from Atlanta, Chicago, Kenosha, and Miami, from St. Louis and Kansas City, just as they crisscrossed the country for Operation Rescue to "stop the killing" at abortion clinics.

But this time was different. This time, they said, they came to save Nancy Cruzan.

"Nancy Cruzan had a right to life just as much as those unborn babies in the womb do," said protester Patrick Mahoney, an anti-abortion leader and founder of the Center for Christian Activism in Florida. "The Nancy Cruzan case is to the right-to-die movement what Roe v. Wade was to the right-to-life movement. As it was at the beginning of the right-to-life movement, we are witnessing the mobilization of people committed to protecting the innocents."

There is much disagreement, however, about who should protect the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves.

Traditionally, families and their physicians make life and death decisions, alone. But the Nancy Cruzan case has attracted an array of strangers--a variety of interest groups, each with its own definition of individual or societal rights.

Anti-abortion groups, from the radical Operation Rescue to the more mainstream Right-to-Life, oppose euthanasia, but disagree about how the battle should be waged. They have been joined in their fight by groups who lobby on behalf of the disabled.

Civil liberties groups talk about protecting individual privacy from state intrusion. Right-to-die groups argue that how a life ends is the most personal of human choices.

For the first time, the Nancy Cruzan case has brought them all to the same battlefield.

"We've never seen anything like this before in the right-to-die movement," said Derek Humphry, founder of the National Hemlock Society, a right-to-die group. "The fact that these anti-abortionists have switched their guns and pointed them at people who are at the end of their lives is not good news for anybody."

Until her old Nash Rambler slipped off an icy country road eight years ago, Nancy Cruzan had been an outgoing 25-year-old who worked the night shift in a cheese factory and loved the outdoors. Since nearly suffocating in that accident--she didn't breathe for at least 13 minutes--she lived in what her doctors said was a "persistent vegetative state," a form of permanent unconsciousness.

Although she could breathe on her own, she showed no awareness of herself nor her surroundings. Her face was red and bloated; her arms and legs severely contracted.

Last Dec. 26, 12 days after the removal of her feeding tubes, and following a protracted legal battle that ended with a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Nancy Cruzan died.

Operation Rescue is one of many groups that took an interest in her case and in another prompted by the Cruzan family's court victories. This week, a hearing may be scheduled to decide whether the father of 20-year-old Christine Busalacchi has the right to move her to Minnesota, where her feeding tube could be removed with less legal strife. For the last three years, Busalacchi, also the victim of an auto accident, has been a patient at the Missouri Rehabilitation Center--in a room not far from Cruzan's.

As Joe and Joyce Cruzan were asking judges to let them end their daughter's feedings, and thus her life, the National Right-to-Life Committee and the Society for the Right to Die faced off in and out of court over what should be done for Nancy Cruzan. And as disabled-rights groups argued for the preciousness of all life, the Hemlock Society issued strong statements about death as the ultimate personal choice.

Inside the hospital, the Cruzan family prayed for an end to their daughter's suffering. Outside, demonstrators waved signs pleading "Feed Nancy."

Food and water, said Operation Rescue leaders, was all they wanted for Cruzan. "We don't consider that artificial life support. Everybody needs food and water to live," Mahoney said. "For people living on heart-lung machines or respirators, we won't object to their being taken off the life-support systems. And if the patient dies, OK. But if we know of a case where they are blatantly trying to kill someone, by withholding food and water as they've done with Nancy Cruzan, then Operation Rescue will be there."

Joseph Foreman, an Operation Rescue founder who led an attempt to "rescue" Cruzan a week before she died, has promised more--and more dramatic--attempts to save patients like Cruzan.

"We'll be looking at physically removing people from the hospital, taking them to a safe place where they can be kept alive," said Foreman.

He says he foresees "a whole underground network of people caring not for terminally diseased people but for people who happen to be completely helpless, like Nancy."

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