Who was Terri Schiavo and how could her case affect the next presidential election?

February 17, 2015
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CT scans of a normal brain (left) and Terri Schiavo's brain (right) showing severe atrophy of her cerebral cortex.

CT scans of a normal brain (left) and Terri Schiavo’s brain (right) showing severe atrophy of her cerebral cortex.

On the morning of February 25, 1990, Terri Schiavo, 26, collapsed at her St. Petersburg, Florida home.  The fall woke her husband of five years, Michael.  He called 911.  Michael Schiavo could not have imagined that, twenty-five years later, the circumstances of his family tragedy would be debated by presidential candidates.

Her heart had stopped and her brain went too long without oxygen.  Ms. Schiavo remained in a persistent vegetative state, which was confirmed on many occasions by independent neurologists.  Caused by severe brain damage, a persistent vegetative state is an absence of awareness and responsiveness.  Involuntary movements and reflexes can remain.  Several months after her collapse, Michael was appointed as her guardian. Terri did not have a living will.  For the next two years, Michael and her parents, the Schindlers, aggressively tried physical and speech therapy, rehabilitation, and even experimental treatments.  Her husband, Michael, trained in nursing and respiratory therapy to better care for his wife.  Yet despite years of effort, there was no change in Terri’s condition.  Michael Schiavo sued his wife’s gynecologist for failing to diagnose his wife’s bulimia.  He contended that undiagnosed bulimia led to significant electrolyte abnormalities and then her collapse.  Her lawyers argued that her death was preventable.  Michael won, and after appeal, he was awarded $750,000 for her healthcare trust, and $300,000 for himself.  Michael’s relationship with Terri’s parents, the Schindlers, deteriorated, when, as Michael claimed, they asked for part of the money.  They soon tried unsuccessfully to remove him as Terri’s guardian.  After she was in a persistent vegetative state for eight years, Michael filed a petition to remove Terri’s feeding tube.  Her parents immediately fought the petition.  Michael claimed that his wife would not have wanted to be kept alive if there was no chance for recovery.  Robert and Mary Schindler, however, cited their Catholic faith, as well as Terri’s faith, in wanting her to live even if severely debilitated.  Several court-appointed reviews, including one by Dr. Jeffrey Karp, neurologist, concluded that the chances of a recovery were “essentially zero”.  Legal battles continued for three more years.  On April 26, 2001, Terri Schaivo’s feeding tube was removed.  It was reinserted two days later after her parents filed another appeal.  Two and a half years later, the Schindler’s final appeal was dismissed.  On October 15, 2003, her feeding tube was removed for the second time.

Two years earlier, Robert Schindler had reached out to Governor Jeb Bush.  Schindler wrote that his daughter has been “falsely depicted” as a “hopeless vegetable.” While Schindler acknowledged that Terri’s case was beyond the governor’s authority, he asked for help.  And, Governor Bush responded.  He personally contacted judges involved in the case, which many considered to be highly inappropriate, but none of the judges were moved.  Five days after her feeding tube was removed for the second time, Bush introduced HB 35E in the Florida Legislature.  Now referred to as “Terri’s Law”, it provided the governor with the ability to issue a stay in a case where feeding is withdrawn from a patient.  It passed both houses and was signed by the governor within 22 hours.  Bush then issued order 03-201 and, as Michael Kruse reported in Politico, “a police-escorted ambulance whisked her from her hospice in Pinellas Park to a nearby hospital to have her feeding tube put back in.”  On May 19, 2004, a Florida Circuit Court ruled Terri’s Law unconstitutional.  The Schindlers appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. After the hearing, Michael Schiavo spoke with reporters and his anger was on display, asking “If this is so important to the governor, where is he?” The Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Terri’s law was unconstitutional because the legislature cannot pass a statute to overrule a judicial decision.  The governor appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but on January 24, 2005, the Court refused to hear Jeb Bush v Michael Schiavo.  Judge George Greer ordered that her feeding tube be removed for the third and last time on March 18th.  Despite a last-minute, and highly controversial effort by the U.S. Congress, all appeals were exhausted, and on March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo died.  An autopsy revealed severe irreversible brain damage.  Her brain weighed less than half of a normal brain.  Nearly ten years later, former Governor Jeb Bush is exploring a run for President.  Michael Schiavo, a registered Republican, has said he will campaign against Mr. Bush.

On September 12, 1960, Senator and presidential-candidate John F. Kennedy addressed an audience of Protestant ministers about their fears of having a Roman Catholic in the White House.  He allayed their concerns with a historical speech declaring “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”  Over the last several decades, the politicization of religion is simply striking.  If it is acceptable, and even encouraged, to intervene in a family’s decision to withdraw support from a brain-damaged spouse, then where does society now draw the line for acceptable government intervention?  Where will the line be tomorrow? And who gets to move it?

What do you think?

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