Finally, Terri's long battle ends
Published in News on March 31, 2005 1:49 PM
PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged woman whose 15 years connected to a feeding tube sparked an epic legal battle that went all the way to the White House and Congress, died today, 13 days after the tube was removed. She was 41.
Schiavo died at the Pinellas Park hospice where she lay for years while her husband and her parents fought over her fate in the nation’s most bitter — and most heavily litigated — right-to-die dispute.
The feud between the parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, and their son-in-law continued even after her death: Brother Paul O’Donnell, an adviser to the Schindlers, said they and their two other children “were denied access at the moment of her death. They’ve been requesting, as you know, for the last hour to try to be in there and they were denied access by Michael Schiavo. They are in there now, praying at her bedside.”
Schiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990 after her heart stopped because of a chemical imbalance that was believed to have been brought on an eating disorder. Court-appointed doctors ruled she was in a persistent vegetative state, with no real consciousness or chance of recovery.
The feeding tube was removed with a judge’s approval March 18 after Michael Schiavo argued that his wife told him long ago she would not want to be kept alive artificially. His in-laws disputed that, and argued that she could get better with treatment. They said she laughed, cried, responded to them and tried to talk.
During the seven-year legal battle, Florida lawmakers, Congress and President Bush tried to intervene on behalf of her parents, but state and federal courts at all levels repeatedly ruled in favor of her husband. The case focused national attention on living wills, since Schiavo left no written instructions in case she became disabled.
After the tube that supplied a nutrient solution was disconnected, protesters streamed into Pinellas Park to keep vigil outside her hospice, with many arrested as they tried to bring her food and water. The Vatican likened the removal of her feeding tube to capital punishment for an innocent woman.
The Schindlers pleaded for their daughter’s life, calling the removal of the tube “judicial homicide.”
Dawn Kozsey, 47, a musician who was among those outside Schiavo’s hospice, wept when she learned of the woman’s death.
“Words cannot express the rage I feel,” she said. “Is my heart broken for this? Yes.”
Although several right-to-die cases have been fought in the courts across the nation in recent years, none had been this public, drawn-out and bitter.
Six times, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. Schiavo’s fate was debated on the floor of Congress and by President Bush, who signed an extraordinary bill March 21 that let federal judges review her case.
But federal courts refused again and again to overturn the central ruling by Pinellas County Circuit Judge George W. Greer, who said Michael Schiavo had convinced him that Terri Schiavo would not have wanted to be kept alive by extraordinary means.
Described by her family as a shy woman who loved animals, music and basketball, Terri Schindler grew up in Pennsylvania and battled a weight problem in her youth.
“And then when she lost all the weight, she really became quite beautiful on the outside as well. What was inside she allowed to shine out at that point,” a friend, Diane Meyer, said in 2003.
She met Michael Schiavo — pronounced SHY-voh — at Bucks County Community College near Philadelphia in 1982. They wed two years later. After they moved to Florida, she worked in an insurance agency.
But recurring battles with weight led to the eating disorder that was blamed for her collapse at age 26. Doctors said she suffered severe brain damage when her heart stopped beating because of a potassium imbalance. Her brain was deprived of oxygen for 10 minutes before she was revived, doctors estimated.
Because Terri Schiavo did not leave written wishes on her care, Florida law gave preference to Michael Schiavo over her parents. But the law also recognizes parents as having crucial opinions in the care of an incapacitated person.
A court-appointed physician testified her brain damage was so severe that there was no hope she would ever have any cognitive abilities.
Still, her parents, who visited her nearly every day, reported their daughter responded to their voices. Video showing the dark-haired woman appearing to interact with her family was televised nationally. But the court-appointed doctor said the noises and facial expressions were reflexes.
Both sides accused each other of being motivated by greed over a $1 million medical malpractice award from doctors who failed to diagnose the chemical imbalance.
However, that money, which Michael Schiavo received in 1993, has all but evaporated, spent on his wife’s care and the court fight. Just $40,000 to $50,000 remained as of mid-March.
Michael Schiavo’s lawyers suggested the Schindlers wanted to get some of the money. And the Schindlers questioned their son-in-law’s sincerity, saying he never mentioned his wife’s wishes until winning the malpractice case.
The parents tried to have Michael Schiavo removed as his wife’s guardian because he lives with another woman and has two children with her. Michael Schiavo refused to divorce his wife, saying he feared the Schindlers would ignore her desire to die.
Schiavo lived in her brain-damaged state longer than two other young women whose cases brought right-to-die issues to the forefront of public attention.
Karen Quinlan lived for more than a decade in a vegetative state — brought on by alcohol and drugs in 1975 when she was 21 — until New Jersey courts finally let her parents take her off a respirator. Nancy Cruzan, who was 25 when a 1983 car crash placed her in a vegetative state, lived nearly eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that her parents could withdraw her feeding tube.
Schiavo’s feeding tube was briefly removed in 2001. It was reinserted after two days when a court intervened. In October 2003, the tube was removed again, but Gov. Jeb Bush rushed “Terri’s Law” through the Legislature, allowing the state to have the feeding tube reinserted after six days. The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that law was an unconstitutional interference in the judicial system.
On March 18, the tube was removed for a third and final time.
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