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A Battle for Control of the Feeding Tube

Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticePoliticsJustice SystemFamilyDeath

As Terri Schiavo received nourishment through a new feeding tube Wednesday, debate raged about whether Gov. Jeb Bush and state lawmakers had done the right thing, or the politically expedient one, in preventing the brain-damaged woman's death.

"The courts should be deciding such cases, not a legislature jumping in," said Bill Allen, professor of bioethics and law at the University of Florida. "It would be like the Colorado Legislature deciding whether Kobe Bryant is guilty or not based only on what they have seen on TV."

But Denise Kuhn, a staff member for Republican state Rep. Sandra L. Murman of Tampa, said the thousands of e-mails received by her office in Tallahassee were running 9 to 1 in favor of intervening to keep Schiavo alive, including "lots of thank yous" for the unusual law passed Tuesday.

The 39-year-old woman's case was being scrutinized for its legal, medical and political ramifications, as well as for its potency as a media-driven event -- literally a life-and-death story involving a helpless woman and the president's brother.

"This subject is one of those where the rough edges of the conservative and liberal philosophies collide," said Daryl Moen, professor of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "There are certain stories that are emotional and central to the public debate: abortion, the right to die, capital punishment. This one fits right in there."

Effectively overruling a Florida judge's decision, lawmakers in Tallahassee on Tuesday rushed through a bill, designed to apply only to Schiavo, that gave Bush the power to order her feeding tube reinstated. The governor promptly did so, though the woman's husband, who had been appointed her guardian by a court, said she never would have wanted to remain alive in such circumstances.

Schiavo, whose feeding tube was disconnected Oct. 15, was taken from a hospice in Pinellas Park to a hospital in nearby Clearwater so she could once again be given tube-fed water and nourishment. Her father, Bob Schindler, insisted Wednesday that his daughter was "alert, active, a live human being." Both parents had strenuously opposed the tube's removal.

"We have close to 15 doctors who are on record with the courts saying she can improve and will improve," Schindler said.

However, George Felos, an attorney for husband Michael Schiavo, said Florida's Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature had flouted the "fundamental right to make our own medical treatment choices." He also said there was no hope for the woman's recovery.

Terri Schiavo has been in a vegetative state since heart failure in 1990 cut off oxygen to her brain.

"If you look at a brain scan of Terri, where her cerebral cortex used to be is a black hole filled with spinal fluid," Felos said. "Terri was almost a week into her death process.... She may have already suffered massive organ failure and kidney damage. What this may have done is just prolonged her death sentence."

A feeding tube was reinserted into the woman's abdomen during a brief stay at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. Wednesday evening, she was taken back to the hospice that had cared for her for several years. Her family visited her there, in a Clearwater suburb, Wednesday night.

Terri Schiavo's brother, Bob Schindler Jr., said his sister was "alert and responsive" as family members hugged and kissed her during their visit.

Her father said he hoped his daughter would recover from being without food or water.

For some observers, the whirlwind action by the Legislature and governor on one person's behalf were proof of the political clout wielded by right-to-life groups, who bombarded Tallahassee with e-mails in support of the emergency law.

The St. Petersburg Times denounced House Speaker Johnnie Byrd in an editorial, saying the Republican who led the campaign "to save Terri Schiavo" was engaging in "immoral politics" to further his U.S. Senate hopes.

Byrd's press secretary, Nicole de Lara, rejected that charge Wednesday.

"The life of a young woman was hanging in the balance earlier this week, and Republicans and Democrats alike threw off political ambitions in an attempt to do the right thing," de Lara said.

A Pinellas County judge on Tuesday gave Schiavo's husband and his lawyer five days to challenge the new law in court. "We believe that a court sooner or later -- we hope sooner -- will find this law to be unconstitutional," Felos told NBC's "Today" show.

Allen, the University of Florida professor, said the law passed Tuesday flew in the face of a 1990 decision by the Florida Supreme Court that authorized the cessation of food and water to another woman in a persistent vegetative state, and whose friend testified she would not have wished to be kept alive.

Existing Florida law and jurisprudence make it clear that in the absence of written instructions, a spouse's opinion on what steps a mate would have wanted taken to prolong his or her life takes precedence over what the parents think, Allen said. He said a court was far more capable of considering the complex facts of a particular case than elected officials.

"The governor and Legislature have gotten hundreds of thousands of e-mails, mostly from people who have seen a few seconds of TV footage showing her [Schiavo] blinking," Allen said. "Medical evidence shows her cortex is dead. What's going to happen the next time there's a similar family dispute? Is the Legislature going to jump into that too?"

For the California-based group that helped pay for an attorney for the parents of the incapacitated woman, the actions of Florida's governor and Legislature were a landmark in the campaign to defend the rights of "inconvenient" members of American society, which the group says includes fetuses threatened by abortion.

"This decision is extremely important because it reassures disabled people they have protection from unwanted deaths," said Dana Cody, a Sacramento attorney who serves as executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation. "If Terri Schiavo can get proper treatment, who knows what improvements she can make in her life?"

However, a professor at Florida State University's Medical School said two professional associations of American neurologists had determined that once a person has been in a persistent vegetative state for one year, chances for a meaningful recovery become minimal to nil.

"In Schiavo's case, the medical community feels pretty certain that this is the condition she is going to live in forever, unless you stop the feeding tube," said Jeffrey Spike, an associate professor of medical humanities. Because her eyes move and she makes sounds, she may appear conscious, but she is not, Spike said.

Twenty years' worth of medical evidence has indicated that dying in such a state by having water and food withheld is painless and dignified, Spike said. But he said he expected the Schiavo case to kindle a nationwide debate on what kind of care an estimated 10,000 Americans diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state should receive -- and who should make that determination.

"Americans can ask themselves this question: If this happens to someone you love, who do you think should make the decision about continuing or stopping treatment?" Spike said.

"Should it be the family as a group? Should it be one person named by the patient? Should it be a judge in a courtroom?," he continued. "Or should it be a public issue that is decided by some sort of political entity?"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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