Terry Schiavo’s Brother: Jeb Bush 'Legitimately' Concerned About Her Treatment

On the 10th anniversary of her death, Bush’s effort to bar the withdrawal of her feeding tube is questioned by some but is defended by Bobby Schindler.

In this family photograph, Terri Schiavo is shown before she had a heart attack and fell into a persistent vegetative state. It has been 10 years since she died, after a Florida court ordered withdrawal of her food and hydration.
In this family photograph, Terri Schiavo is shown before she had a heart attack and fell into a persistent vegetative state. It has been 10 years since she died, after a Florida court ordered withdrawal of her food and hydration. (photo: Schiavo family via Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — As Jeb Bush launches his bid to secure the GOP’s presidential nomination for 2016, the former Florida governor’s past intervention in the battle to end the life of Terri Schiavo has drawn scrutiny.

“The media is trying to make it a campaign issue,” acknowledged Bobby Schindler, Terri Schiavo’s brother.

A devout Catholic, he has helped to establish a Philadelphia-based foundation, Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, which aids families that may want to challenge efforts to remove feeding tubes from relatives who are diagnosed to be in “a permanent vegetative state.”

Back in 2003, after Michael Schiavo overcame the Schindlers’ objections and secured the right to remove his wife’s feeding tube, Bush stepped in and helped pass “Terri’s Law.” The bill was designed to prevent the removal of the feeding tube, but was declared unconstitutional.

On March 29 — two days before the 10th anniversary of Terri’s death as a consequence of the court-ordered withdrawal of her food and hydration — The Wall Street Journal described Bush’s “years-long effort to save Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman whose husband wanted to remove life support despite her parents’ objections” as one of his “most enduring conservative credentials.”

The New York Times linked Bush’s role in the Schiavo case with the pro-life values of his Catholic faith. And some commentators have hinted that such actions should be viewed as a red flag — evidence that his fervent religious beliefs prompted him to improperly intervene in a family tragedy.

“The case showed he ‘will pursue whatever he thinks is right, virtually forever,” Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, told Politico.

But Bobby Schindler doesn’t view then-Gov. Bush’s involvement in the high-profile case as a political stunt or an unwarranted intrusion into a private family dispute.

Rather, Schindler believes that Bush properly discharged his duties as the state’s chief executive.

In an interview with the Register, Schindler equated Bush’s intervention in Terri’s case with state governors’ frequent and unremarked upon review of appeals in death-row cases, where clemency may be granted.

“Obviously, the governor saw something that concerned him: A woman with a disability was going to be starved and dehydrated,” Schindler said.

“He wanted to take a deeper look, and that happens in death penalty cases all the time.”


‘No Layer of Protection’

As Schindler sees it, federal and state law properly provides for the heightened scrutiny of death-penalty decisions. Unfortunately, similar provisions are not in place when a family challenges the decision to remove feeding tubes from patients like his late sister.

“There are layers of protection for people on death row,” he added “but when you look at someone like Terri, there really is no layer of protection.”

“Gov. Bush,” said Schindler, “worked within the law” as he reassessed the arguments justifying the removal of Terri’s feeding tube.

“Gov. Bush met with our family in 2003,” Schindler remembered. “He met with me on a separate occasion.”

Those meetings, he noted, had a lasting impact.

“I was impressed by the governor. He was sincere and had a legitimate concern about what was happening with Terri.”

“His sincerity made a lasting impression on me. It actually surprised me, as you are not sure what kind of meeting you are going to have” with a political leader.

In February, Bush was asked if he regretted his dogged efforts on behalf of Terri Schiavo, but he defended his actions.

“I acted on my core belief that the most vulnerable in our society should be in the front of the line,” Bush told Fox host Sean Hannity during an interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “They should receive our love and protection.”

While some polls suggest that Americans generally disapproved of Bush’s involvement in the Schiavo case, it is not yet clear whether the flurry of media stories on the subject will create an issue for his campaign down the road.


Helping Families Protect Loved Ones

Bobby Schindler, for his part, is primarily concerned with helping families protect the lives of loved ones.

He says that a growing number of hospital ethics committees now deem feeding tubes to be “extraordinary” treatment and thus optional.

He is also worried about the impact of fresh efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide in several states, in the wake of Brittany Maynard’s decision to take advantage of Oregon’s “death with dignity” laws.

“We don’t give families false hopes. We don’t know what is going on” with their loved one, said Schindler, who noted that his foundation’s services are free of charge, and, in many cases, families are directed to legal assistance.

“But families have every right to ask for treatment and for more time” before a relative with severe brain damage is deemed incurable, he said.

“More and more, hospitals are deciding,” Schindler noted. “Strangers are making those decisions, not family members. People need advocates.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.