PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — When Terri Schiavo collapsed one winter day in 1990, no one could have predicted that her medical condition would divide St. Petersburg's Catholic community more than a decade later.

Schiavo, now 37, has been in a state of diminished consciousness since her heart attack 11 years ago, when she lost the flow of oxygen to the brain for five minutes. She receives nutrients and water through a tube.

Doctors believe she could live many more years.

Her parents, some doctors, and a priest who visits her regularly say that she smiles, laughs and cries when they visit.

But others charge that her movements are only reflexes, and in late April the office of Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg declined to criticize a decision to withdraw her feeding tube.

For 60 hours in late April, doctors withheld food and water from Schiavo due to a court order granted to her husband, Michael Schiavo. The withdrawal occurred April 24, one day after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that court order.

Then, before Terri could die of starvation, new evidence emerged that Terri's parents say proves that Michael perjured himself in the hearings that led up to the feeding tube's withdrawal.

In the face of that evidence, the judge who had ordered Terri's feeding tube withdrawn reversed his decision on April 26, so she is now receiving food.

According to Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, trouble began when Terri was awarded $700,000 in 1993 from a malpractice suit. “Within eight months of receiving that money, [Michael Schiavo] made an attempt to end her life by asking [her doctors] not to give her antibiotics” for a life-threatening infection,” Bob Schindler charged.

Michael Schiavo denied that accusation and charged that the Schindlers themselves hoped to obtain the settlement money, which is in a trust fund, by being named Terri's guardians, the St. Petersburg Times reported in a Jan. 2000 article.

In May 1998, Michael Schiavo first requested that Terri's feeding be stopped. Two years later, on Feb. 11, 2000, a judge granted that request.

The judge's decision was based in part on Michael Schiavo's claim that before her heart attack, Terri told him that she would not want to live on life support. “She said, ‘No tubes for me,’ that kind of thing,” Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, told the Miami Herald.

Terri's parents claim that Schiavo's former girlfriend has now come forward with a story contradicting Schiavo's statement.

Joe Magri, the Schindlers’ attorney, said that the girlfriend had told investigators, “On two separate occasions [the girlfriend] indicated that she had concerns about the future and what Schiavo was going to do about Terri's situation. [She] mentioned that Schiavo became angry and said, quote, ‘How the hell should I know? We [Michael and Terri Schiavo] never spoke about this!’”

When to Let Go?

Dr. Lofty Basta, a St. Petersburg cardiologist, said that Terri's parents needed to realize that it is time to let go.

Although he had not examined Terri Schiavo, he said, “After three months of a cardiac arrest, if there is no measurable improvement in high brain function, the chance of any measurable improvement is less than 1%.

“She has been unconscious for 11 years. So she has become permanently and irretrievably void of all that characterizes a human being: emotion, will, passion, and awareness.”

Basta, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, asked, “Is this life when it is totally void of all characteristics that defined that person as a person?”

Basta said, “A mindless existence sustained only through feats of high-tech intervention is not what medicine should be all about.”

Jana Carpenter, a nurse and the secretary of a Florida pro-life group, responded:

“The intent here is to end some-one's life who is not dying. If we withheld food from you for two weeks, you'd die too.”

Medical ethicist Wesley J. Smith noted, “This case is another in a series of cases where we will decide whether it is acceptable to dehydrate to death somebody because they have a cognitive disability.”

And while he agreed with Basta that “there are times when one should let go,” he cautioned, “Food and water is not a high-tech invasive procedure.”

Added Smith, “Often these diagnoses of permanent unconsciousness are erroneous. People in permanent comas wake up all the time.”

Catholic Responses

The Schindlers, practicing Catholics, said that their daughter had also practiced the faith. The Schindlers tried unsuccessfully to get the Diocese of St. Petersburg to weigh in on their side.

The day before Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was withdrawn, the office of Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg issued a statement that did not assert that it was necessary to continue providing her with sustenance.

Although the statement noted, “Classic Roman Catholic theology suggests that the removal of food and water from even a comatose patient can only be justified if the natural projected path of the disease will lead inevitably to death, sooner rather than later,” it also stated, “The Catholic Church would prefer to see all parties take the safer path but it must and will refrain from characterizing the actions of anyone in this tragic moment.”

Critics of the bishop's statement point out that Terri has no diseases and could live for years in her current condition.

Said pro-life spokeswoman Jana Carpenter, “The Catholic community at large is confused as to the Church's teaching. What has been most distressing is that Terri's case could have been used to impart the clarity of the Church's belief that everyone deserves food and water.”

In June 2000, St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali made a statement clarifying the Church's position on medical care, during a similar controversy over a brain-damaged patient in a St. Louis Catholic hospital.

Archbishop Rigali quoted Pope John Paul II from his Oct. 2, 1998, ad limina address to the bishops of California, Nevada, and Hawaii.

Said Pope John Paul II, “[T]he presumption should be in favor of providing medically assisted nutrition and hydration to all patients who need them.”

The Pope added that “feeding, hydration, and normal medical care” are “ordinary means of preserving life,” not “burdensome” or “disproportionate.”