PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - Shortly before 2 p.m. yesterday, a chaplain, a doctor and other health care workers prayed in Terri Schiavo's room, gave her Holy Communion through her feeding tube and then tearfully disconnected the life support that has kept her alive for 15 years.
The intimate service behind the walls of the hospice where Schiavo has been cared for during the past five years belied the drama playing out in Washington, Tallahassee and courtrooms on both sides of Tampa Bay.
It pitted Congress against Florida's state court system, religious beliefs against long-standing right-to-die laws and a distraught husband against his grief-stricken in-laws.
At the center was a severely brain-damaged woman who doctors say could take up to two weeks to die.
"It was a very calm, peaceful procedure, of course, with a degree of emotion," said Michael Schiavo's lawyer, George Felos, announcing that the feeding tube was withdrawn at about 1:45 p.m.
Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, left the Woodside Hospice without comment, Mary Schindler's face pressed against the back window of the car. She was crying.
"The family is heartsick," said their attorney, David Gibbs.
Yesterday's extraordinary events began when the Republican-controlled Congress issued subpoenas and legally binding invitations demanding that Terri and Michael Schiavo and their caregivers appear at committee hearings next week. The clear intention was to forestall the removal of the feeding tube.
"It was an attempt to intimate and coerce the treating physicians in this case and the health care workers in this case and Mr. Schiavo ... from carrying out the lawful court order," Felos charged.
Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer, who has consistently ruled that it was Terri Schiavo's wish not to be kept alive artificially, quickly agreed. As the clock ticked past his 1 p.m. deadline for the tube's removal, he rejected the U.S. House's request to intervene.
"I have had no cogent reason why the [congressional] committee should intervene," Greer told attorneys in a conference call yesterday, adding that last-minute action by Congress does not invalidate years of court rulings.
By late afternoon, the Florida Supreme Court backed the judge, dismissing the House's appeal.
Also early yesterday, Terri Schiavo's parents filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tampa, asking a federal judge to step in. They did not succeed.
By the time U.S. Circuit Judge James S. Moody denied the Schindlers' appeal, their daughter's feeding tube had already been withdrawn - for the third time in five years.
For seven years, the Schindlers have fought their-son-in- law's efforts to allow his wife to die. He says - and repeated court rulings have agreed - that she made it clear in casual conversations that she would never want to live in a void, completely unaware of her surroundings and dependent on others for her every need.
Her parents vehemently disagree, disputing the court findings that their daughter is in a persistent vegetative state and insisting she could recover if only they could only bring her home, and provide her the rehabilitative therapy their son-in-law long ago decided was futile.
In 2001, another judge ordered their daughter's tube reinserted hours after its removal. In 2003 the Florida Legislature passed "Terri's Law," empowering Gov. Jeb Bush to set aside a court ruling and order the tube's reinsertion.
That law, however, was struck down as unconstitutional, leaving the Schindlers' hopes with legislators in Washington and Tallahassee who have been struggling for two weeks to cobble together a law to keep Terri Schiavo alive.
Gibbs said he hoped lawmakers in Washington or Tallahassee could come to agreement. "I'm hopeful these men and women can get a strategy, get a focus, because we're running out of time," he said.
Felos would not predict what could happen. "We don't know whether we're at the end of this situation," he said. "The fact is opponents of Mrs. Schiavo's rights are continuing in every way they can to defeat them."
Randall Terry, a longtime anti-abortion activist helping the Schindlers organize their campaign to save their daughter, warned Congress that it had better help.
"The conservative people of this country did not work their tails off for the past 10 years to get conservatives in both houses so they could give us a song and dance," Terry said. "We put you in power so you can deliver. Here's an opportunity for you to deliver on the life of an innocent woman."
But in Tallahassee yesterday, the state Senate declined for the second straight day to pass a measure to keep Terri Schiavo alive.
In Pinellas Park, the area around the hospice was heavy with religious symbols, signs and about 80 to 100 prayerful protesters, most of them hoping to keep Terri Schiavo alive.
A white car with a trailer hitch drove by the hospital pulling about a 4-foot statue of Jesus on a cross. A group of young adults and children bore red tape over their mouths, with the word "Life" written on it.
Many denounced Greer. "He deliberately ordered the removal of this tube so this dear woman could be starved to death during Holy Week," said Patrick Mahoney, the director of the Christian Defense Coalition. "This shows the heart of Judge Greer."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
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