Judge Kills Law That Saved Terri Schiavo

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Terri's Law, the emergency bill passed last fall by the Florida Legislature that saved the life of a 40-year-old brain-damaged woman, has been declared unconstitutional.

In a May 6 ruling, Florida 6th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Douglas Baird said Floridians have the constitutional right to the privacy of their medical decisions.

“The state's interest in preserving life does not override an individual's personal choice regarding his or her own medical-treatment decisions,” Baird wrote.

His decision paves the way for the feeding tube to be removed again, although Michael Schiavo's lawyer has said that won't occur until the appeal process is finished.

Terri's Law was swiftly enacted and signed last October by Gov. Jeb Bush to save Terri Schindler-Schiavo, who had suffered heart failure and severe brain damage in 1990. Although she is not in a coma and can breathe on her own, she has been kept alive with the help of a feeding tube.

The courts have found her to be in a “persistent vegetative state,” which her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, deny. They believe she might be able to recover if given the proper therapy. Her family also disputes the contention of her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, that Terri told him she never wanted to be kept alive by artificial means.

Last October, the court ordered the removal of Terri's feeding tube, which would have allowed her to starve and dehydrate. But six days later, with a public outcry opposing Terri's death, the Florida Legislature hastily wrote and passed a law that was clearly aimed at saving Terri's life.

The bill stated that the governor had the authority to prevent the withholding of nutrition and hydration from a patient if the patient had not written an advance directive, was found by a court to be in a persistent vegetative state and a family member was challenging the withholding of the feeding tube. Bush then signed an executive order for Terri's feeding tube to be reinstated. Michael Schiavo immediately challenged the law in court.

In his ruling, which voids the law, Baird said the bill authorized the governor to act “according to his personal discretion” while ignoring the patient's right to privacy.

Extra Protection

Ken Connor, an attorney for Bush, said the governor was “steadfast” in his belief that the statute is constitutional and immediately ordered an appeal. Connor added that the governor is willing to take the appeal, if possible, to the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts.

“This statute, far from being the penalty the judge described it, really is intended as an extra layer of protection for the frail and handicapped and disabled who meet its criteria,” Connor said. “The governor has never maintained that he has unlimited discretion on how to deal with Terri's situation. What he has sought to do is to follow a process that allows us to determine with confidence what her desires are.”

Connor also expressed concern about the dangers of judicial activism, which he defined as the occasions when judges are not interpreting the law but are “one-person legislatures who are really social engineers in black robes who seek to advance their own ideas of what the agenda ought to be.”

This brand of activism “undermines democratic self-government through our elected representatives,” he said.

Michael Schiavo, who has two children with his girlfriend, offered no statements regarding the latest decision. Meanwhile, his lead counsel, George Felos, did not return phone calls for comment.

Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which is assisting Felos, said in a statement that the ruling was “a strong rebuke to politicians who attempt to interfere in medical decisions that should be left to all of us.”

The Florida Catholic Conference did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the court ruling.

Terri's father, Robert Schindler, said the judge's decision was expected.

“It's just another event in Terri's case where these judges have made decisions that I feel are totally one-sided,” he said.

The Schindler family is still upset about not being able to see Terri since late March — ever since puncture wounds were found on her arms after a visit by her parents. Police are still investigating.

Since the discovery, Michael Schiavo has not allowed anyone to visit Terri, though in early May he seemed to soften that stance. One of his attorneys said the Schindlers may be allowed to visit their daughter but only if they pay for an off-duty officer to accompany them. The Schindlers have denied any connection to the puncture wounds.

Pat Anderson, the Schindlers' attorney, said she has filed an emergency motion to restore family visitation.

Schindler, who couldn't offer specific comments because of the current police investigation, said it was “upsetting” for him and his wife not to be able to see their daughter.

“Terri is nothing more than a pawn, and they're using her to inflict a hardship on our family,” Schindler said. “To deny her mother the opportunity to be with her is absolutely cruel. We have a concern she's totally isolated from any type of stimulation. Lord knows what they're telling her. They may have told her we've abandoned her. We just don't know.”

Pope's Comments

Meanwhile, Anderson said she will include Pope John Paul II's March 20 remarks about patients in a “persistent vegetative state” in a motion she plans to file within the next several weeks.

During an international meeting with Catholic physicians, the Pope said those who are considered to be in a “vegetative state” have the right to nutrition and hydration — which he said are “morally obligatory.” He said no one, no matter how seriously ill or disabled, should be considered a “vegetable” or an “animal.” If done willingly and knowingly, death by starvation or dehydration ends up being “true and proper euthanasia by omission,” the Pope said.

Anderson said Terri went through 12 years of Catholic-school education. “We have to assume that if Terri could tell us today what she wants, she would want to be obedient to the Pope's teachings,” Anderson said.

Mary Jane Owen, executive director of a newly formed organization called Disabled Catholics in Action, said she found the Pope's comments to be compassionate and show that the Church is concerned about every life.

“Yes, people who are non-responsive in the present moment deserve to be treated as people,” she said, “and they don't deserve to be starved and dehydrated to death.”

Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.