Cover Story

Saved by the bill

COVER STORY: How quick thinking and swift political action saved the life of a disabled woman-and rekindled a pro-life movement beaten down by defeat after defeat

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

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.

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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."


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