For a pro-life movement worn down by years of judicial losses, Oct. 21 was a day of stunning legislative victories. Two different senates-one in Washington, one in Tallahassee-responded to two chief executives named Bush and voted by lopsided margins to protect life just getting started and nearing its end.
The U.S. Senate's vote to ban partial-birth abortion may save thousands of lives in the long run (see p. 24), but it was the struggle for the life of a single, brain-damaged woman in Florida that riveted the nation's attention.
After five years of legal wrangling and six days of court-ordered starvation, Terri Schiavo finally won a reprieve from the Florida legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush. As an ambulance arrived Tuesday evening to rescue her from the Tampa-area hospice where she was slowly dying, a cheer went up from the 100 or so supporters holding a vigil outside. Many of them had been there six days earlier when a state judge rejected the last of her family's legal appeals and the feeding tube was cut out of her stomach. On that day, a sense of bitter resignation coursed through the crowd: The battle that had dragged on for so many years was over, its lone victim sentenced to death. There seemed to be nothing left to do but watch and wait.
In Tallahassee and across the country, however, the battle was far from over: The battleground was merely shifting from the courts to the executive branch. On Oct. 15, hours before the deadline for removing the feeding tube, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush met with Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, and several of their supporters. As the Schindlers pleaded with the governor to save their daughter's life, he responded that he lacked the constitutional authority to defy repeated decisions by the courts. Still, he left them with some hope. If the Schindlers' lawyers could find a constitutional justification for him to intervene, he would gladly do so.
Disability advocate Joni Eareckson Tada observed the meeting from her wheelchair. She says the governor appeared sincere and supportive, and she believed that he really did want to help. So did Terri's father. "This governor is with us, we're reading off the same page," he said to Mrs. Eareckson Tada after the meeting ended. Now they just had to help him find a way to act.
Calls went out quickly to Christian law firms around the country. Janet Folger, whose group Faith2Action helps to coordinate efforts among dozens of pro-family organizations nationwide, started speed-dialing her lawyer friends on their home numbers and cell phones. "Thomas More Law Center, Christian Law Association, Alliance Defense Fund, individual attorneys-these are all people I called up and just said, ÔHelp!'"
"We got a call as a direct result of that Wednesday morning meeting with the governor," recalls Robert Muise, associate counsel at the Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based Christian advocacy organization. "We made it an absolute priority here in the office. I mean, you're talking about a state-sanctioned, unjust killing. The four attorneys who were here, we put our heads together and pored over the Florida statutes all day."
Before they went home Wednesday night, the Thomas More attorneys had sent Gov. Bush a lengthy letter outlining his executive authority to intervene based on charges of criminal wrongdoing in the Schiavo case. "Our position was that he had constitutional and statutory authority to conduct criminal investigations," Mr. Muise says. "From all the information we looked at, there was probable cause to believe that there was some criminal wrongdoing involved.... We urged him to create a formal Ôtime out' until the government could bring its full resources to bear on a criminal investigation."
Mr. Bush got plenty of other advice, as well. Some lawyers suggested he could use an executive agency, like the Department of Children and Families, to intervene on Terri's behalf. Others said he could enforce the state constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Still others tried to convince him that any executive order would not intrude on the courts' authority, because no judge had ordered the feeding tube removed. (They simply granted Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, the right to remove the tube, if he wished.)
"This was a fascinating case study of how groups can step up to bat on a moment's notice," says Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney at the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy. "The American Center for Law and Justice, Liberty Counsel, Thomas More-we were all scrambling to find some legal authority for the governor. I don't recall seeing any real disagreements. We were just looking for any way to save this woman's life."
Yet on Thursday, despite all the hours of work and the meticulous legal arguments, Gov. Bush appeared unmoved. He told an afternoon press conference that he felt his hands were tied in the Schiavo case. He wanted to act, but feared he would be violating the separation of powers clause of the state constitution.
"That was very upsetting to us," Mr. Muise recalls. "Seldom are these purely legal questions. There were plenty of political issues associated with this, as well.... We believed this was not a question of legal authority but of political will."
While theoretical legal battles were being waged by fax and e-mail, other friends of Terri were working to keep up the political pressure. Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry was outside the hospice every day, organizing scores of sign-toting protesters who became an inescapable fixture on evening newscasts and newspaper front pages across the state. The Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation used its website to gather signatures for an electronic petition aimed at Gov. Bush. By the time the tube was removed, 60,000 people had asked the governor to intervene. The next day, 100,000 had signed on. By the following Monday, the number had swelled to 160,000. Faith2Action networked with family groups around the country to generate a flood of e-mails and phone calls to the president, the governor, any politician who would listen.
Time was running out, however. Each day the Schindlers visited their daughter in her 10-foot-square room, trying to keep her spirits up even as her body wasted away from starvation and dehydration. Terri's bed was moved right next to the door so police officers stationed outside could make sure no one tried to feed her against her husband's wishes. Her eyes started to sink into her head, her skin to dry out. When a family priest tried to administer last rites over the weekend, he was prohibited from doing so because the wine and wafer would violate the starvation order.
Then on Friday, three days into Terri's forced fast, a new strategy came to light. If Gov. Bush could not act unilaterally, why not give him specific legislative authority to do so? The state legislature, normally dispersed for recess at this time of year, had already been called back to Tallahassee for a special session on economic development. If the governor were willing to extend the focus of the special session, maybe the legislators could pass a law to save Terri's life.
Attorneys at the Gibbs Law Firm, a Florida-based practice that is home to the Christian Law Association, helped draft a bill for the state legislature. "The legislation we proposed was actually a moratorium on withdrawing nutrition and hydration from patients," says Rex Sparklin, one of the Gibbs attorneys working on the case. By definition, that would have made Michael Schiavo's actions illegal, and Gov. Bush could have avoided getting involved altogether.
It immediately became apparent, however, that political realities would prevent quick passage of such a bill. Jim King, the powerful Republican president of the state Senate, had authored a "death with dignity" bill as far back as 1988, after watching his own parents die slowly with cancer. The bill written to save Terri Schiavo might have overridden the specific instructions of some patients' living wills-something Mr. King would never allow.
So attorneys went back to the drawing board, narrowing the bill sufficiently, they hoped, both to save Terri's life and to win the support of Mr. King. The new language gave the governor authority to order a feeding tube reinserted if the patient does not have a living will, is in a persistent vegetative state, and has at least one family member who requests the reinsertion.
Even with the more limited language, passage of Terri's Bill, as it became known, was far from certain. The Schindler team found an eager sponsor in House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, an ardent conservative in a tough primary for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate. According to local newspaper reports, Mr. Byrd asked Mr. King on Sunday to bring up the bill in the state Senate, a request that the Senate president declined. When Mr. Byrd went on a Tampa TV station later that day to say he would bring up the bill regardless of what happened in the Senate, pro-family websites posted Mr. King's office number and urged supporters to call the recalcitrant lawmaker.
Thousands did. All day Monday, e-mail servers at the state capitol were bombarded with messages and phone lines were swamped with calls. "Whenever you tried to call the state Senate on Monday, you got a busy signal," Ms. Folger recalls. "It was music to my ears."
Still Mr. King resisted. Then, at 5:30 p.m. Monday, after Mr. Byrd announced he would be discussing Terri's Bill on a national news show, the Senate president hastily called a news conference at the front doors of the upper chamber. "Time, in this situation, is not our friend," he said in announcing that the Senate would debate the measure the next day. "If we are going to err, then let us err on the side of caution.... I hope to God we've done the right thing."
That same night, the House passed Terri's Bill by a margin of 68-23. The measure sailed through the Senate on Tuesday, passing 23-15 with several amendments. Gov. Bush signed the new law almost immediately, then issued an executive order requiring Terri's feeding tube to be reinserted. Shortly after 7 p.m., following an agonizing six days without food or water, doctors finally began a drip to supply her with lifesaving fluids.
Her parents were not allowed to savor the victory in person, however, because Michael Schiavo ordered the hospital to refuse all visitors to his wife's room. Meanwhile, his attorney, George Felos, filed two last-minute legal motions to prevent the governor's order from being carried out.
Those legal challenges were turned aside, but only briefly. Even as Terri Schiavo is brought back slowly from the brink of death, her case is taking on a life of its own. Despite the flurry of legal work that preceded it, Terri's Bill is sure to be contested on both procedural and constitutional grounds. Even the most optimistic of Terri's supporters knows her life is far from secure. Yet for now, at least, the crisis is past, and Terri's friends and family are ready to celebrate.
"We are just ecstatic," Bob Schindler declared after the Senate vote on Tuesday. "It's restored my belief in God."
"I've been in the pro-life movement 25 years, and I've seen some remarkable things, but I have never seen anything quite like this," says Janet Folger. "It's a phenomenal story of persistence and love on the part of the Schindler family, but all of the glory goes to God. We put our faith into action, but it was God that did the impossible."
-with reporting by Lynn Vincent