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Wrongful 'right'

Top stories of 2005 | The case of Terri Schiavo

Issue: "News of the year," Dec. 31, 2005

Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Pinellas County, Fla., woman whose case polarized America and prompted end-of-life legislative action in Congress and statehouses nationwide, died on March 31-nearly two weeks after courts ordered the removal of food and water at her husband's request.

The case stretched back to 1990, when Mrs. Schiavo collapsed in her home, suffering oxygen deprivation that left her brain-damaged. In early 1993, after pleading with a medical malpractice jury for money to care for his wife "for the rest of my life," her husband, Michael Schiavo, collected nearly $2 million. Four months after receiving the money, he made his first attempt to end his wife's life: He asked her doctors to withhold antibiotics, which they refused to do, but which Mr. Schiavo later admitted he knew might cause his wife to develop sepsis and die.

For 12 years, Mr. Schiavo battled Mrs. Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. Mr. Schiavo insisted that his wife was in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) and that, while healthy, she had once stated that she would not want to live that way, a claim Pinellas County Judge George Greer agreed with in 1997. As Mr. Schiavo fought to have his wife's feeding tube removed, the Schindlers fought to save her life. They obtained the testimony of doctors who said Mrs. Schiavo was not PVS, and who documented her laughing, crying, and responding to her parents. The Schindlers also charged that Mr. Schiavo wanted their daughter dead so that he could inherit her medical trust fund and marry the woman with whom he'd long had an adulterous affair-and children.

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Judge Greer in 2001 and 2003 ordered Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube removed, but it was twice reinserted after another court, then Florida lawmakers, intervened.

On Feb. 25, 2005, following two years of legal wrangling, the judge again ordered the tube removed. Tense weeks passed and a national debate erupted as the Schindlers filed a flurry of legal motions, and federal lawmakers-including Rep. Dave Weldon and Sen. Mel Martinez, both Florida Republicans-debated passage of the Incapacitated Persons Legal Protection Act (IPLPA) of 2005. The law would extend to people like Mrs. Schiavo the right of habeas corpus, a federal-court review of whether a person has been unlawfully deprived of liberty.

Quickly, the nation divided into camps: Conservatives pointed out that Mr. Schiavo had denied his wife therapy, had tried more than once to bring about her death, and had in his adultery a motive besides his wife's wishes for wanting her to die. Liberals charged that those opposed to dehydrating Mrs. Schiavo were meddling in a private family matter and denying a woman her "right to die."

On March 18, doctors removed Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube. Soon, a small group of Christians gathered to protest outside the Pinellas County hospice where Mrs. Schiavo lay. Then, on March 21, Congress passed the IPLPA and a pajama-clad President Bush emerged from the White House at 1:11 a.m. to sign it.

In the end, though, appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court declined the Schindlers' habeas corpus suit on behalf of their daughter. And the ensuing hail of legal paperwork did nothing to slow Mrs. Schiavo's march toward death. On March 31 at 9:05 a.m., she passed away. An autopsy report would later say that her brain condition was consistent with PVS.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Schiavo's family, friends, and caregivers say she responded to the people around her. And one chilling aspect of her case was the Stalinesque way in which Mr. Schiavo and the courts prevented the world from seeing that-barring reporters' access to Mrs. Schiavo, prohibiting the release of videos, and sequestering her from public view. The media itself, meanwhile, failed to press for sunshine.

As dehydration sapped her life away, Mrs. Schiavo's skin clung to her bones, her tongue cracked, and her eyes receded into dim hollows. "We killed her in a very barbaric manner," said her parents' attorney David Gibbs. "She was feeling pain. There was an imploring look in her eyes . . . as if she were saying to me: 'I'm trusting you; can't you do something?'"

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