Cover Story

Turnout burnout

As Terri Schiavo's life ebbed, an expected army of pro-life foot soldiers turned up AWOL

Issue: "Schiavo’s fight for life," April 2, 2005

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - They built it-but almost nobody came.

From the welcoming entryway to the Woodside Hospice, bright orange snow fence stretched 500 feet to the east on 102nd Street and another 500 feet to the west. The barrier-at some points four layers deep in a town where it never snows-was there not just to protect the hospice complex. Pinellas Park police installed the fence to restrain and control the big crowds they were told might arrive from all over the United States to protest what was happening inside the hospice, where Terri Schiavo edged near death after medical personnel removed her feeding tube on March 18.

One policeman told WORLD his department had been warned that as many as 25,000 or even 50,000 people might show up on Palm Sunday weekend. His department, he said, was ready. "We built it," he said, "and they can come."

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So the Pinellas Park police built their barrier. Bewilderingly, almost nobody came.

To be sure, several hundred passionate partisans did show up to protest the state's official treatment of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged-but in the testimony of her parents, by no means "vegetative"-victim of a heart attack 15 years ago. Mrs. Schiavo, 41, had for almost all that time depended on a feeding tube to keep her alive. But soon after noon on the Friday before Palm Sunday, that feeding tube was removed at the insistence of her husband, Michael Schiavo. After some 23 court decisions involving at least 16 judges in different jurisdictions, Mr. Schiavo also had the state of Florida on his side.

Medical experts differed about whether, deprived of all food and water, Terri Schiavo would experience severe pain and suffering. But no one disagreed that, because of her husband's decision and the state's concurrence, she would die-and probably within 10 to 14 days.

So the human drama, or the prospect of watching thousands of people respond to the drama, attracted the media. The little industrial park across from Woodside Hospice became a bustling media village with a dozen or more satellite transmission trucks turning the venue into something more like Madison Square Garden than a quiet Florida side street.

Bob Franken and his crew from CNN staked out a prime spot for their hour-to-hour coverage. Reporters from The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Los Angeles Times jostled each other for a chance to talk alone with Terri's mother and father, Bob and Mary Schindler. But mostly, the media people talked to each other. The big crowds, predicted by some activists to begin rolling in by the busload, never materialized. On March 18-the day the feeding tube was removed-200 people milled about the site; the next day, no more than 100 folks were still around. By Palm Sunday, fewer than 50 protesters and activists remained in front of the hospice at any given time. Media people easily outnumbered the folks they were supposedly covering.

The lack of boots on the ground in Pinellas County "does not mean a lack of concern," said Lynda Bell of Florida Right to Life. "There's so much you don't see going on behind the scenes in this case."

Her group has worked since 2001 to save Mrs. Schiavo, keeping in close contact with family members and lobbying the Florida statehouse-and recently Congress-for legislative action. The group was instrumental in ushering through Terri's Law, the measure that enabled Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to order Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted in 2003. Last month, Florida Right to Life quietly hammered lawmakers to move HB701, a Schiavo remedy which passed the Florida House but failed in the Senate.

As pro-lifers in Tallahassee hounded the state Senate for passage in what appeared to be the last hours of Mrs. Schiavo's life, those outside the hospice were a motley and disordered crew.

Chris Braren, a 38-year-old plumber from Valdosta, Ga., said he came because "if we don't start by helping her, it will be the old folks' home next." Mr. Braren wasn't sure he'd still have a job when he got back to Valdosta, since he was taking unauthorized time off. But this was more important. "I've been such a poor Christian," he said, "but it's time for me to get ahold of God like I never have."

Guabe Garcia-Jones, a lawyer for the American Life League in Washington, D.C., decided while driving to Florida that if Terri's tube were actually withdrawn, he would take no food or water either until it was restored. Mr. Garcia-Jones pitched a small tent in a grassy area set aside for protesters. He lay quietly on a mat, seeking no attention, but talking agreeably with those who asked-including Gwen, an 11-year-old girl who was understandably intrigued with his commitment. "I don't fear death," he said. But then: "Well, not too much, anyway. I just hope this makes me good enough to meet God." That was on Saturday. On Sunday, Mr. Garcia-Jones and his tent were no longer there.

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