Judge Rules Against Florida Woman's Right to Live; Family Will Appeal

TAMPA, Fla. — A Florida judge said he has sympathy for the family of Terri Schiavo, but the family says his conclusion was harsh: Mrs. Schiavo should die.

The 39-year-old Florida woman suffered brain damage after collapsing in 1990 and has been kept alive ever since with the help of a feeding tube. District Court of Appeals Judge Chris Altenbernd, who wrote the June 6 opinion for a three-judge panel, affirmed an earlier circuit court's ruling that ordered the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, which would lead to her death. The courts have found her to be in a “persistent vegetative state.” Her family denies the claim.

For the past five years, Schiavo has been at the center of a bitter legal battle between her husband, Michael Schiavo, and her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler.

Michael Schiavo wants the tube removed because he contends she once told him she never wanted to be kept on life support. The woman's parents dispute that claim and believe she can gradually recover, if given the proper care.

The Schindlers and Michael Schiavo also had a falling out in 1993 over the use of malpractice suit money and Terri Schiavo's care.

“Each of us, however, has our own family, our own loved ones, our own children,” Altenbernd wrote in his decision. After viewing videotapes of Terri Schiavo, the judge added that he understood “why a parent who had raised and nurtured a child from conception would hold out hope that some level of cognitive function remained,” despite the fact that the cerebral cortex sustained severe and “irreparable injuries.”

“If Mrs. Schiavo were our own daughter,” he wrote in the opinion, “we could not but hold to such a faith. But in the end, this case is not about the aspirations that loving parents have for their children. It is about Theresa Schiavo's right to make her own decision, independent of her parents and independent of her husband.”

Pat Anderson, the lawyer for Schiavo's parents, said she would appeal, going as high up as the Florida Supreme Court if need be, which might prove futile since that court already has refused to intervene in the case.

George Felos, Michael Schiavo's lawyer, said his client was “pleased” with the ruling. Felos’ own reaction was mixed.

“It shouldn't take over a half a decade to fulfill a patient's medical treatment wishes,” he said. “In that sense I have a feeling of sadness as a lawyer and a lover of the law; I don't think the legal system has worked particularly well in this case.”

Robert Schindler also expressed frustration with the judicial system. He said videotapes introduced during the appellate hearing showed his daughter, who lives in a hospice facility near St. Petersburg, as being aware of her environment and obeying commands. She also breathes on her own and is not considered to be in a coma, according to her family.

“When her mother gets anywhere near her, she erupts into laughter,” said Robert Schindler, who added that faith in God is what has kept him and his family going during the years. “The enjoyment, the smile that comes on her face. She's trying to talk.”

He also voiced his bitterness at his daughter's legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, whose girlfriend recently gave birth.

“The last time we had contact with him was a year ago or so when he promised he would get my daughter's wheelchair fixed,” said Schindler, who, along with other family members, visits his daughter several times a week. “It's been broken for three years ... and he never did. She's confined to a room, literally in solitary confinement. Anything we bring her, he throws out. We were bringing her clothes, gifts; if he knew [something] was from us, it was thrown out immediately.”

Pope John Paul II has spoken about the withdrawal of food and water from patients in similar circumstances. In an October 1998 address to several U.S. bishops during their ad limina visit (once every five years to report on their dioceses), the Pope said: “The statement of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee,’ Nutrition and Hydration: Moral and Pastoral Con siderations,’ rightly emphasizes that the omission of nutrition and hydration intended to cause a patient's death must be rejected and that, while giving careful consideration to all the factors involved, the presumption should be in favor of providing medically assisted nutrition and hydration to all patients who need them.”

“To blur this distinction,” John Paul continued, “is to introduce a source of countless injustices and much additional anguish, affecting both those already suffering from ill health or the deterioration that comes with age and their loved ones.”

Pro-life organizations expressed outrage about the recent Schiavo appellate decision.

“We have had enormous pressure placed on our culture over the last 30 years to deny the humanity of certain human beings because they are unable to either contribute to society or because they are viewed, to quote the Nazi German doctors, as’ useless eaters or as individuals who are unwanted and pose a great burden on their family,” said Judie Brown, president of American Life League. “This is how we came to have abortion on demand in the United States, and now those very same arguments are being used to deny that individuals like Terri Schiavo are, in fact, human beings who deserve to be respected because of their person-hood.”

Nancy Valko, spokeswoman for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses, put it more concisely: “Killing people is not curing them.”

The Schindlers believe doctors can help their daughter recover. It remains to be seen if a court will allow that to happen.

Carlos Briceno writes from Seminole, Florida.