MOUNT VERNON, Mo. -- Nancy Cruzan, whose feeding tube was removed Dec. 14 ending a legal battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, died after almost eight years in a vegetative state, hospital officials said.
Cruzan, 33, who had become a key in the battle between right-to-die activists and their opponents, had been steadily deteriorating since her parents, Lester L. and Joyce Cruzan of Carterville, won their battle to remove the tube that supplied her with food and water.
About 20 people protesting the removal of the feeding tube remained outside the hospital during the morning Wednesday after Cruzan had died about 3 a.m.
The family released a statement saying, 'She remained peaceful throughout and showed no sign of discomfort or distress in any way. Her family was at Nancy's bedside when she died.'
The family thanked the administration and staff of the hospital for their support, as well as 'the many people from all walks of life from around the country who have written and called to express support.'
'Knowing Nancy as only a family can, there remains no question that we made the choice she would want,' the statement concluded. 'Nancy, we will always love you and hold your memory in our hearts.'
Opponents of the court ruling that allowed the Cruzan family to withhold food and water from the woman expressed disappointment at her death and bitterness toward her family.
'In this season of hope, Nancy Cruzan's death by starvation and dehydration diminishes hope for thousands of medically dependent people nationwide,' said David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee of Washington, D.C.
O'Steen said Cruzan's death places hundreds of thousands of severely disabled people who need assistance to eat at risk for death by starvation. 'This is a tragedy not only for Nancy Cruzan, but also for the nation,' he added.
'This woman died absolutely needlessly in a cold and calculated way, ' said Cathy Ramey, a spokeswoman for Operation Rescue of Binghamton, N.Y., an anti-abortion group. 'We are enormously grieved that the courts were unwilling to advocate for her. We're saddened that her parents had so totally rejected her that they put her in a position where she was starved to death.
'I can't honestly say I have a great deal of compassion for the situation her parents are in right now, but her parents had no compassion for her,' she said. 'Her father repeatedly said Nancy was not aware, Nancy didn't feel any pain. Whose pain was he trying to ameliorate by putting her to death?'
The Rev. Joseph Foreman of Montreat, N.C., leader of an anti-abortion group called Prisoners of Christ, also blasted the family.
'I sympathize with the hardship of caring for a helpless woman but I have absolutely no sympathy for a family who solves their problems by starving their daughter to death when there were hundreds of bona fide offers to care for her regardless of her condition,' said Foreman, who was one of 19 people arrested last week during a protest at the hospital.
'A criminal gets more legal protection than Nancy Cruzan did,' Foreman said. 'And even a dog in Missouri cannot be legally starved to death. Missouri leads the new American barbarism.'
However, Father Kevin O'Rourke of St. Louis University, an expert on medical ethics, said the family had done the right thing.
'I hope it leads to a better understanding that this is not killing a persn but rather allowing a person to die because you can't help any more,' O'Rourke said. 'When the cerebral cortex is disfunctional, you can't help a person any more in that situation. You have to let go sometime.'
Cruzan was 25 on the night of Jan. 11, 1983, when she was thrown from her car in a crash near her home in Cartersville, Mo. When the highway patrol found her, they found no sign of breathing or heartbeat. Paramedics were able to restart her heart and lungs but her brain had been without oxygen for 12 to 14 minutes.
The Cruzan right-to-die case was the first in Missouri to deal with the withholding of food and hydration, while other cases involved respiration or ventilation.
Cruzan's feeding tube was removed after a county probate judge said there was clear evidence Cruzan would have asked that the tube be removed. Judge Charles Teel Jr. allowed the feeding tube to be taken out and Cruzan's parents removed it about 24 hours after the decision.
Teel's ruling differed from a previous decision that was overruled by state and U.S. Supreme courts because he said this time he had 'clear and convincing evidence' that Cruzan would have wanted the tube removed.
The evidence consisted in part of testimony from three friends who told of conversations in which Cruzan said she would never want to live 'like a vegetable' on medical machines.
In June the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Missouri Supreme Court's ruling that the Cruzans could not remove their daughter's feeding tube without 'clear and convincing evidence' of her wishes in the absence of a written statement.
The 5-4 ruling said that a person whose wishes are clearly known has a constitutional right to reject life-sustaining technology. But the court said the state of Missouri could sustain Nancy Cruzan's life, because her family had not shown by 'clear and convincing evidence' that she would have wanted the treatment stopped.
The Supreme Court's ruling was the first venture into the right-to- die issue.