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The fight of her life

Law | Terri Schiavo's family continues the battle as her court-ordered death date looms

Issue: "Curt Schilling: Never hide," March 19, 2005

Wearing crisp slacks and suit jackets, Bob Schindler Jr. and his sister, Suzanne Vitadamo, stormed Capitol Hill on March 8, looking an awful lot like lobbyists. In the last-ditch effort to save their older sister Terri Schiavo, they had to act like lobbyists too. Dividing up the chambers of Congress, Bob took the Senate and Suzanne took the House.

With snow falling outside, each hit office after office to drum up support for new legislation that could win their sister another chance to live. Then at 5 p.m., the siblings regrouped to meet with Florida Republican Rep. Dave Weldon, who with Sen. Mel Martinez co-authored a new bill, the Incapacitated Person's Legal Protection Act of 2005 (IPLPA). The law would extend to people like Ms. Schiavo the right of habeas corpus, a special procedure that allows a federal court to review whether a person has been unlawfully deprived of liberty.

Ms. Schiavo is the brain-damaged Pinellas County, Fla., woman whose husband has for years fought to have her feeding tube removed, while her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, battled to save her. Michael Schiavo contends that before a radical seizure disabled her in 1990, his wife told him she would not have wanted to be kept alive "artificially," by which Mr. Schiavo means fed through a tube. The Schindlers say Mr. Schiavo wants their daughter dead so that he can move on with his life-one that includes a longtime fiancée and their two children together-and inherit Mrs. Schiavo's medical trust fund.

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But throughout a 12-year legal slugfest, Ms. Schiavo has not had her own attorney, a fact Mr. Weldon sees as a violation of her civil rights. "Terri Schiavo, and men and women like her, deserve the same due process rights that death row inmates are granted," Mr. Weldon said. "When a court is making a life-or-death decision for a disabled person who has been charged with no crime, shouldn't they be afforded independent counsel to speak on their behalf?"

The National Right to Life Committee, which helped Mssrs. Weldon and Martinez draft IPLPA, noted in a press release that even serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy are allowed to use habeas corpus to gain a federal hearing after exhausting state court appeals. In past opinions, the Supreme Court has ruled that the right extends beyond prisoners.

Mr. Martinez debuted the IPLPA-which has 62 co-sponsors, including eight Democrats-in the upper chamber on March 7; Mr. Weldon introduced it in the House on March 8. Meanwhile, a flurry of last-ditch legal maneuvers, press conferences, and television appeals aimed to stop an order by Florida Circuit Court Judge George Greer, who ruled that health-care workers remove Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube on March 18.

Over the past two weeks, the Schindlers have rained paperwork on the court. They charged that the judge made an evidentiary error in a crucial earlier ruling, appealed for new medical tests, asked to file a petition for divorce on their daughter's behalf, and requested that if her feeding tube is removed, their daughter be orally fed and hydrated.

Judge Greer denied every motion, including the feeding request. This though at least two health-care workers in 2003 filed affidavits saying they had given Ms. Schiavo ice water and small spoonfuls of Jello while they cared for her at a nursing home in the late 1990s. In 2000, three doctors filed affidavits saying Ms. Schiavo could swallow on her own.

Mr. Weldon, who is a physician, characterized Judge Greer's oral-feeding denial as "an outrage," while Stephen Drake of the Illinois-based anti-euthanasia group Not Dead Yet said the ruling "fits in with Greer's pattern," and noted that the judge's order regarding March 18 doesn't just allow the removal of Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube, it orders removal. "This whole issue has been horribly distorted into a question of who should be the decision-maker about her life. The real question is, what are Terri Schiavo's rights under the law? In the absence of any compelling evidence to the contrary, the presumption should be that she should continue to get food and water."

Mr. Schiavo has allowed only tube-feeding and has refused repeatedly to allow doctors to administer "swallow tests" to determine whether Ms. Schiavo can eat and drink. The circular sound of that-Mr. Schiavo's confining of his wife to a feeding tube, but contending that she wouldn't want to live that way-mirrors the circular rut in which the case has crawled through the Florida courts.

Mr. Schiavo's lawyer, right-to-die advocate George Felos, has won from Mr. Greer the right to have his client's wife dehydrated and starved, only to be stymied by Schindler motions and appeals, which Mr. Greer in turn overruled. Twice, in 2001 and 2003, Ms. Schiavo's tube actually was removed, but was reinserted after last-minute legal and legislative reprieves.

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