Terri's Life In The Balance

In this family photograph Terri Schiavo (r) is shown before she had a heart attack and suffered severe brain damage in 1990 in Gulfport, Fla. “Terri's Law,” enacted earlier this year by Govenor Jeb Bush, was designed to keep Terri alive but the Florida Supreme Court recently ruled against it.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The family of Terri Schiavo is hoping a court will give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she would choose life for herself.

In the wake of a defeat at the Florida Supreme Court Sept. 23, the Catholic family of the brain-damaged woman is arguing that Schiavo, 40, would want to follow Pope John Paul II's direction and continue receiving food and water, even if they are delivered through a tube.

Schiavo's estranged husband, Michael Schiavo, maintains that she once told him she would not want to be kept alive “artificially.”

Terri Schiavo has been at the center of a bitter six-year legal battle over whether she should die by dehydration and starvation. The state Supreme Court unanimously struck down “Terri's Law,” the emergency bill passed last fall by the Florida Legislature that gave Gov. Jeb Bush the power to keep Schiavo alive by the reinsertion of her feeding tube. In ruling that the law was unconstitutional, the justices said it violated the state Constitution's separations-of-power doctrine and gave the governor illegal policy-making authority.

The court acknowledged the emotional issues in the case.

“We recognize that the tragic circumstances underlying this case make it difficult to put emotions aside and focus solely on the legal issue presented,” Barbara Pariente, the chief justice, wrote. “We are not insensitive to the struggle that all members of (Schiavo's) family have endured since she fell unconscious in 1990. However, we are a nation of laws, and we must govern our decisions by the rule of law and not by our own emotions.”

Terri Schiavo suffered heart failure and severe brain damage in 1990. The courts have found her to be in a “persistent vegetative state.” Her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, disagree.

She is not in a coma and can breathe on her own. Her family believes she might recover if given proper therapy. They also dispute the contention of her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, that Terri told him she never wanted to be kept alive by artificial means.

A series of court decisions gave Michael Schiavo, who has two children with his girlfriend, the right to remove the feeding tube last fall, which would have allowed Terri to starve and dehydrate. Terri's family appealed.

But the latest court decision — on the law enacted to protect her and others in her situation — means the governor has two options to get the ruling overturned, said Ken Connor, representing the governor in the legal battle.

One is to ask for a rehearing before Florida's Supreme Court justices, he said. The deadline for that request was Oct. 4. The other is to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, in which case the governor's lawyers have 90 days from the date of the ruling to file a petition.

Pope's Relevance

Once the Schindler family exhausts all routes to save Terri, her feeding tube will be removed, said George Felos, Michael Schiavo's attorney.

Several days after the ruling, Terri's parents and one of their lawyers appeared on CNN's “Larry King Live” to talk about the case. They mentioned other legal means they are pursuing to try to save their daughter. The parents are seeking to have Michael Schiavo removed as Terri's guardian, and they are also asking a judge to consider Pope John Paul II's statement earlier this year regarding withholding food and water.

In March, speaking to a group of physicians and medical ethicists from around the world, the Holy Father said: “The administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality.”

The Schindlers say their daughter would want to follow the Pope's directive. They went before a circuit court Sept. 30 to ask the judge to uphold not just Terri's religious liberty rights, but “the religious liberty rights of all people,” David Gibbs, the Schindlers’ attorney, told CNN's Larry King.

The state Legislature may provide another avenue to save Terri's life, said Burke Balch, the director of medical ethics for the National Right to Life Committee. He pointed to a bill, called the Florida Starvation and Dehydration of Persons with Disabilities Prevention Act, which, if passed, would make the general presumption that people who can't speak for themselves would want food and water.

Balch made the analogy that people who need to get their tonsils removed are told of the dangers of the surgery and then give their informed consent. The bill acts in the same way, he said: Those who want to deny themselves water and food, according to the bill, should give their informed and express consent that they know cutting off sustenance will result in their death.

“As long as that law becomes law while Terri is still alive,” Balch said, “it would be changing the standards for the future, including for her future, and it would not have become a constitutional problem that the Florida Supreme Court said that Terri's Law did.”

Disabled Woman ‘Terrified’

Meanwhile, supporters of the fight to save Schiavo were dismayed by the latest court ruling — and the potential consequences it may have on people with disabilities.

“It means that the federal and state governments are going to wipe their hands clean of any concerns about our rights: our rights to live,” said Mary Jane Owen, director of Disabled Catholics in Action. “I'm literally terrified by this. This case opens the door to a holocaust for people who are disabled. They're easy prey. In the utilitarian society, which is becoming more and more utilitarian, there is no room for compassion for those of us who are seen as less than perfect and less than producers.”

Owen has partial hearing and uses a wheelchair.

She added that cases such as Schiavo's show the United States is returning to a time of eugenics. She said Nazi doctors practiced eugenics on patients “out of compassion.”

“None of us becomes disabled without also going through a period of shock,” Owen said. “Then we find out that life is sweeter than death. And life with disability is one more challenge.”

Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, wasn't surprised by the Florida Supreme Court's “devastating” decision. The courts, she said, have been using their judicial activism for years in “destroying innocent human beings.”

“What this tells us, and should tell us in the pro-life movement, is we absolutely must have an amendment to the United States Constitution which protects these people from the time their life begins, because there is no other solution,” Brown said. “We cannot depend on the courts to do a thing.”

She also referred to the time of Nazi Germany in talking about Terri's husband's purported compassion.

She said, “As Flannery O'Connor once wrote, when compassion is divorced from the cross of Christ, the gas chambers are not far behind.”

Carlos Briceno writes from Seminole, Florida.