The following guest post was written by the Honorable Clifton A. "Chip" Woodrum of Roanoke, who served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1990 until his retirement in 2004. Former Delegate Woodrum contacted DFV in response to our recent piece mentioning the Washington Post article about the similarities between the current Terri Schiavo controversy and Hugh Finn case here in Virginia.
Woodrum was Chairman of the House of Delegates Claims Committee in 1999, which considered a bill to compensate Michele Finn and others in the Finn family for legal fees neccessitated by former Governor Gilmore's intervention in the matter. The bill passed the Virginia Senate (in substitute form, which also called for a health care decision education program) but was passed by indefinitely in a close 8-7 vote by the Claims committee in the House.
Former Governor Jim Gilmore was quoted in the Washington Post on March 23rd as saying he would have followed the same course today in the matter of Hugh Finn. He described his actions as “trying to take a timeout. He added “…that became lost, because it became a political football."
Really? And who made it a “political football?"
The tragic case of Terri Schiavo does bring to mind the equally tragic situation surrounding the death of Hugh Finn and the egregious acts of former governor Jim Gilmore. Hugh Finn, a TV news reporter, was catastrophically injured in an automobile accident in March 1995 which ruptured his aorta and deprived his brain of oxygen. As a result, he was unable to eat or care for himself, he was diagnosed by numerous doctors as being in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of improvement and no chance of recovery.
After reporting on a similar case in Kentucky, Hugh Finn had told his wife, Michele Finn, and a friend that he would never wish to live in such a condition.
Despite this Michele sought to prolong Hugh’s life for over three years. A feeding tube was inserted and he was maintained in a nursing home in Manassas, Virginia.
Finally, in June 1998, she decided to remove the feeding tube that was the only thing preserving his life. Under Virginia law, food and water may be withheld from persons who are in a persistent vegetative state. When she informed Hugh’s family of this a split occurred and Hugh’s brother, John Finn went to court to prevent the removal of the feeding tube.
Public attention focused on the family’s agonizing decisions. Various state officials volunteered their opinions on the proper course of action for the family. Articles were written and vigils were held.
An independent examination of Hugh Finn was undertaken by a neurologist retained by the state which confirmed the previous findings of Hugh’s persistent vegetative state.
After hearing the evidence and the argument, Judge Frank Hoss of the Circuit Court of Prince William County ruled that Michele Finn would remain as her husband’s guardian and that she had the right to have the tube removed. The judge gave John Finn until September 30, 1998 to appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
On September 28th the Finn family announced that it had dropped it opposition to the removal of the feeding tube. There would be no appeal. It appeared that a tragic situation was coming to a calm and peaceful end.
However, those who had hope for a peaceful end had not reckoned on the boundless opportunism of Governor Jim Gilmore. Sensing an opportunity for publicity and to ingratiate himself with certain elements, Gilmore entered the situation with legal guns blazing. The governor filed a petition with the court minutes before the deadline. After a midnight hearing, Judge Hoss rejected the governor’s arguments and the family had the feeding tube removed a few minutes later.
Having lost his case in court, Governor Gilmore sought to win by press conference, and announced that he would appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia to have the feeding tube reinserted. The appeal was filed on October 2nd and three hours later the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the appeal, holding that withholding food did not amount to “mercy killing.”
Hugh Finn died eight days after the feeding tube was removed. The matter did not rest there, however. In a subsequent hearing, Judge Hoss held that the state should reimburse Michele Finn for legal costs because Gilmore’s efforts to intervene violated the state’s prohibition on frivolous lawsuits. Judge Hoss held that Gilmore’s “position was not well grounded or warranted by existing law." The judge also noted that no new evidence to support the governor’s position was presented adding the law did not “require the court to listen to the same evidence again…”
At a time that a family should have been permitted to grieve privately and to reach closure, they were victimized by overreaching and intrusive government action.
But perhaps the most eloquent valedictory on this episode was made by Bishop Walter F. Sullivan. Writing in The Catholic Virginian of October 19, 1998, Bishop Sullivan noted that the debate jumped from “morality to politics when state officials became involved.” (So much for Gilmore’s “sincerity”).
But that was not all.
In discussing the medical and ethical situation confronted by the Finn family, Bishop Sullivan noted that “persistent vegetative state” was an acceptable diagnostic category and added:
"Withdrawing disproportionate medical procedures is not the same as assisted suicide. It is not an act of killing. It simply allows the illness to take its natural course.”
So numerous doctors, a circuit judge, seven justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Catholic Bishop of the Archdiocese of Richmond concurred that Governor Gilmore’s position had no validity in medicine, fact, law, ethics or religion.
Bishop Sullivan also noted:
"If the matter had not been dragged into the political arena, perhaps the family could have had the peace and tranquility they needed to face the frailty and mortality of one whom they all dearly loved.”
Amen to that.