Terri Schiavo case

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We are a nation of laws... we must govern our decisions by the rule of law and not by our own emotions.
—Barbara Pariente, Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court[1]

Terri Schiavo, born Theresa Marie Schindler (1963–2005), was a Florida woman who suffered cardiac arrest from undetermined causes.[note 1] The ensuing loss of oxygen destroyed large parts of her brain, and she spent 15 years in a persistent vegetative state on life support before her husband decided to pull the plug in 2005, to much public and political praise and objection.

The fundie revolt[edit]

A family battle between her husband Michael and her parents became a cause célèbre for the Religious Right in 2004-2005 as her husband fought to have her life support systems (primarily, a feeding tube) terminated, according to what he claimed were her wishes. The cause was particularly taken up by Representative Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Somewhat hypocritically (did you really expect anything else from DeLay?), years earlier DeLay had his own father whacked similarly made a decision to have his father removed from life support systems following a tragic accident.[2][3]

While the Religious Right's dogmatism in the case alienated much of the country (opinion polls at the time showed a large majority of Americans supported the right of her husband as the lawful next of kin to make decisions about her care and to terminate life support[4]), it proved to be an extremely divisive political issue.

The last months of Terri Schiavo's life proved to be a long period of anti-abortion political theater,[5] with much speculation as to husband Michael's motives (during Terri's time in hospice, he had met another woman and begun a family with her) and the exact cause and nature of Terri's condition. Bill Frist (R-TN), a non-practicing physician who was US Senate majority leader at the time, drew ridicule for making conclusive statements regarding her condition based on videotapes alone.[6] Schiavo's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, enlisted the help of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical activist Randall Terry (previously known for his anti-abortion campaigns with Operation Rescue) as well as the comedy that is the Florida legislature.

Terri's Law[edit]

After years of litigation during which the Schindlers unsuccessfully attempted to present the case that Terri was not in a persistent vegetative state and was capable of being rehabilitated, the feeding tube was originally ordered removed in October of 2003, but the Schindlers successfully petitioned the Florida legislature which passed "Terri's Law."

Under the terms of this law, Governor Jeb Bush ordered Terri's feeding tube reinserted pending the report of an independent guardian. The guardian's report found that Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery, but this was rendered moot when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Terri's Law was unconstitutional, and the US Supreme Court denied certiorari. Judge George Greer again ordered the removal of the feeding tube to be set for March 18, 2005, at which point the US Senate led by Republicans Frist, Santorum, and Mel Martinez took up the case.

In a bill that has been nicknamed the "Palm Sunday Compromise," the three Senators passed the bill on a 3 - 0 vote with 97 Senators not present, thus violating Article I of the US Constitution by conducting business without a quorum.[7] The bill then passed the US House on a vote of 203 - 58, with 174 Representatives not present. Dubya cut short his vacation at his Crawford, Texas, ranch and flew back to Washington specifically to sign the bill on March 20, 2005.[8] The bill transferred the parents' cases to the federal level, but the Supreme Court again denied certiorari, finally exhausting their legal avenues.

Conflict of custody[edit]

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement petitioned Greer to allow them to take custody of Schiavo so that her feeding tube could be reinserted, which he denied. Their appeal of this decision automatically triggered a stay of the decision during which time the FDLE intended to forcibly take Schiavo into custody. Greer ordered the stay lifted and ordered "each and every and singular sheriff of the state of Florida'" to enforce his order. Despite pressure from his supporters (tough on crime, yeah?), Jeb Bush relented to avoid a direct confrontation between the FDLE and local police.[9]

Schiavo finally died from complications of the feeding tube's removal (specifically dehydration) on March 31, 2005.


An autopsy was performed by the Florida medical examiner and determined, as expected, that Schiavo had suffered irreversible brain damage in 1990, up to having a smaller than normal brain after the loss of a significant number of neurons, contrary to her parents' and their supporters' assertions.[10]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Bulimia was suspected but never proven.