Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida called a special session of the state legislature on October 20 to pass a law tailored to save a 39-year-old St. Petersburg woman-who is brain-damaged but suffering no life-threatening illness-from court-ordered starvation.
The woman, Terri Schiavo, faced slow death at the order of her husband Michael Schiavo, who is living with another woman with whom he expects his second child. Terri had gone without food or water for six days before the legislature acted. She is now recovering from her court-ordered fast thanks to the law Bush signed October 21.
Terri suffered severe brain damage after her heart failed in 1990. Since then, she has been bed-ridden and unable to speak. She is conscious, however, and is not receiving life-support.
Robert and Mary Schindler, Terri’s parents, want to keep her alive and care for her. Her husband, who remains Terri’s legal guardian, has fought for a decade to terminate her life.
President Backs Jeb
President Bush said October 28 that his brother had “made the right decision” in saving Terri’s life.
If the courts overturn Terri’s Law, allowing Michael Schiavo to starve and dehydrate Terri to death over a period of one to two weeks, it will set the precedent that an otherwise healthy person who is mentally impaired can be terminated at the decision of another party. This would surpass the agenda of many advocates of assisted suicide-such as Dr. Jack Kevorkian-who typically maintain that subjects should first give explicit consent.
Terri Schiavo left no written instructions about her care. The evidence of her wishes presented at trial was a casual remark she supposedly made after watching a television movie in the mid-1980s about a woman being kept alive by a respirator. Her husband insists that she said she would not want to be hooked up to a machine if terminally ill. Florida Judge George Greer accepted this as “clear and convincing evidence” of her desire to die now.
Although Terri’s case has been portrayed in the media as a “right-to-die” case, Terri Schiavo is not dying. She does not suffer from any terminal illness. Nor is she believed by anyone to be in great pain. She merely receives nutrition and water through a feeding tube.
“It’s not a ‘right-to-die’ case, it’s a ‘duty-to-die’ case,” said Schindler family spokeswoman Pamela Hennessey.
“The notion that food and water is, all of a sudden, medical care is a very dangerous road to be going down as a legal matter,” said attorney Mike Hirsch, who has assisted the Schindler family at various points during the decade-long legal battle over Terri’s life. “At some point in my life, I might be consuming more food than somebody else thought I was worth.”
Hirsch explained that the outcome of the case could have implications for Alzheimer’s patients, stroke victims, and the severely mentally retarded, should they ever receive nourishment through a feeding tube.
Terri Schiavo has not received any therapy to help her learn how to swallow again. Such therapy, if successful, could obviate the need for feeding tubes altogether.
“Terri Schiavo is nothing more than the thin end of the wedge,” said Hennessey. “If they can get the general public comfortable with the idea of starving and dehydrating a cognitively disabled person, then we’ve just adjusted the bar.”
In videos aired on national television and available on the Schindler family’s website (terrisfight.org), Terri is responsive to her surroundings, moving her eyes to follow objects and at times making vocal noises.
Although Florida law gives patients a right to refuse extraordinary means of medical treatment to preserve life when there is no reasonable hope for recovery from terminal illness-a principle Terri’s parents accept-Terri is not receiving any such treatment.
Although “Terri’s Law” protects her life for now, the ACLU of Florida has filed a brief in favor of overturning the law in the Pinellas circuit court on behalf of Michael Schiavo and the continuing cause of terminating Terri’s life.