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A good Catholic?

Law | Terri Schiavo's life may hinge on how seriously she took her religion

Issue: "Kerry praying for votes," Oct. 9, 2004

Since 1997, family members and lawyers have crossed swords over whether Terri Schiavo should live or die.

Ms. Schiavo in 1990 collapsed in her home, suffering oxygen deprivation that left her severely brain-damaged. Since then, she has lived in care facilities, physically healthy and responsive to her environment, but drawing nutrition through an abdominal tube.

Her husband, Michael Schiavo, contends that Ms. Schiavo once told him that under such conditions she would have wanted to die. On Sept. 27, on Larry King Live, Ms. Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, summed up simply her commitment to her daughter's life: "I want her. I'm her mother. I love her . . . I would love to give her therapy, but if I couldn't . . . I'll take her home with me now and take care of her for the rest of my life."

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But the Florida judiciary on Sept. 24 said no to that-again. In a rare unanimous ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a law passed last year by the Florida legislature to save Ms. Schiavo's life. Passed on Oct. 22, 2003, "Terri's Law" allowed Gov. Jeb Bush to order Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted after healthcare workers removed it Oct. 15 in compliance with a judge's order. The Florida court ruled that Terri's Law violated the constitutional separation of powers between branches of government.

Ken Connor, lead counsel for Gov. Bush, said much of the public has been misinformed about the government's role in the case since it became a fixture in national headlines last year. "People think this is a lady who would have wanted to die and that Gov. Bush and the legislature won't let her," Mr. Connor said. "But when you ask them whether they were aware that her husband never told a civil jury his wife wanted to die when he was seeking millions of dollars in a malpractice claim, when you tell them he . . . was having an affair during that very trial, and that as soon as he got the malpractice money he withdrew orders for his wife's antibiotic and rehabilitative therapy, had her cats killed, melted down her wedding ring, and had two children with another woman, people say, 'That's outrageous!'"

Outrageous but true, courtroom documents show. Nevertheless, the Florida Supreme Court's decision clears the way for Judge George Greer, the lower court magistrate who ordered Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube removed in 2001 and 2003, to do so again.

Now Ms. Schiavo's life depends on the outcome of separate but parallel legal battles. In the case of Terri's Law, Mr. Connor is reviewing whether to petition the Florida high court for a rehearing or to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Connor said the Bush team might base a federal appeal on an argument that the Florida judiciary denied Gov. Bush his right to due process, for example, by refusing to allow his lawyers to depose Michael Schiavo and others during the battle over Terri's Law.

Meanwhile, Schindler attorney David Gibbs planned to argue in a lower court on Sept. 30 that removing Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube would violate her religious beliefs. Before sustaining brain damage, Ms. Schiavo was a practicing Catholic, according to affidavits filed by friends, priests, and family members. In March 2004, Pope John Paul II, addressing an international conference on life-sustaining treatments and bioethics, 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 . . . and as such [is] morally obligatory." He added that the withdrawal of a feeding tube as the only means of preserving a patient's life "is a serious violation of the law of God."

Michael Schiavo's attorney claims Ms. Schiavo was not a practicing Catholic and that the Schindlers' religious-liberty motion is a delay tactic. But Schindler attorney Pat Anderson said, "The religious-liberty motion goes to the heart of the case. The engine that is driving the judge's decisions is that Terri's wish is to die. It is our contention that Terri, as a Catholic, raised in the tenets of the Catholic Church, would choose not to defy the pope."

"The issue is Terri's wishes," Ms. Anderson added. "If the judge determines that Terri's wishes now would be different because of the pope's very clear teaching, I hope Michael Schiavo will try as hard to uphold those wishes in saving her life as he has been in seeking her death."

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