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Frist Plagued Again by Comments on Schiavo

Times Staff Writer

In the wake of the Terri Schiavo autopsy results, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has come under renewed fire for past statements that questioned her doctors’ dire assessment of her medical condition, based on his own review of a videotape.

Frist, a surgeon and potential presidential candidate in 2008, on Thursday denied that he had contradicted doctors who had said the brain-damaged Florida woman was in a persistent vegetative state before her feeding tube was removed March 18. She died March 31.

“I never made the diagnosis,” Frist said to reporters Thursday. “I wouldn’t even attempt to make a diagnosis based on a videotape.”

But Democratic political operatives circulated transcripts of Frist’s statements in March that clearly questioned the doctors’ diagnosis after he had watched the video footage of Schiavo.

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“That footage, to me, depicted something very different than persistent vegetative state,” Frist said March 17 on the Senate floor.

Frist made the comments in March as he and other GOP leaders pushed Congress to approve a bill that aimed, in vain, to prolong Schiavo’s life by allowing federal courts to review her parents’ request that her feeding tube be reattached. President Bush signed the bill into law March 21.

Frist’s statements during debate on that bill drew criticism from medical professionals at the time, and he and his staff previously have insisted his remarks did not represent a diagnosis.

But his comments came under fresh scrutiny after the autopsy results released Wednesday showed she had massive and irreversible brain damage that the medical examiner said was consistent with a persistent vegetative state.

The additional finding that she was blind and oblivious to what was happening around her was at odds with Frist’s comment in his March 17 remarks in the Senate that “she certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli.”

But queried about that comment in an interview Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show, Frist insisted, “I never said she responded.”

The Schiavo matter could prove troublesome to Frist in a presidential campaign if opponents use it to raise questions about his credibility.

“It is never good when you say you didn’t do something when you are on camera doing it,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican political strategist.

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Frist’s adversaries, Fabrizio predicted, “will use it time and time again.”

Democrats were quick to insist that Frist would be plagued by the Schiavo matter.

“He’s not helping himself,” said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He’s discovering the perils of running the Senate and running for president at the same time.”

But Frist’s efforts in the Schiavo case earned him kudos from evangelical activists and antiabortion groups -- constituencies important to candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

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And Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, predicted that the Schiavo episode would have little long-term political effect on Frist or the party.

“That issue is going to be so ancient at the time the presidential campaign rolls around in 2008,” Ayres said. “It’s going to be yesterday’s news.”

One Republican close to Frist, who asked not to be identified when discussing future political strategies, said the senator’s medical credentials would still be an asset if he ran for president -- just as they were when he first ran for the Senate in 1994.

“He defeated an incumbent senator saying he wasn’t a politician, he was a surgeon -- someone who cared about people,” the Republican said.

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The autopsy results and Frist’s comments on them returned attention to an episode this year that had mixed political results for the GOP.

Leaders of the party’s social conservative wing had called on Congress to do something to keep Florida courts from allowing Schiavo’s feeding tube to be removed. Her husband had sought the removal, arguing that she would not want to live in a vegetative state.

Her parents disagreed and argued that her condition was not irreversible. But they repeatedly failed to convince state courts, which sided with Schiavo’s husband.

Congress acted just before the tube was removed, with Frist and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in the lead on legislation to allow the case to be reviewed by federal courts.

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Underscoring the urgency of the issue, many lawmakers interrupted their Easter recess to return to the Capitol for the politically charged vote, and Bush flew to Washington from his Texas ranch to sign the bill.

Although the effort was applauded by many Republican activists, polls showed that most Americans believed it had been inappropriate for Congress to get involved. Some analysts say the issue has contributed to the recent decline in public approval ratings of the Republican-controlled Congress.

During his comments from the Senate floor in March, Frist cited his conversations with neurologists and his own observations gleaned from the video footage, and he read from what he called a classic medical textbook, to raise questions about whether Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state.

But on Thursday, he said the point of his statements and the Senate’s action was only to be sure Schiavo’s doctors were correct in their diagnosis before she was allowed to die.

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“That’s all we said -- ‘Go to the courts and make sure your diagnosis is right before you remove that tube and starve her to death,’ ” he said on the “Today” show.

The medical examiner’s report said Schiavo died of dehydration.

Frist also said he had no regrets about how Congress handled the issue. “Would I do it over again? Yes, I would do it over again,” he told reporters.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Comments in question

Here are statements about the Terri Schiavo case made by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in March and on Thursday:

Excerpts from his Senate floor speech March 17:

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“A lot of people have severe disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and receptive aphasia, but [Terri Schiavo’s] brother said that she responds to her parents and to him. That is not somebody in persistent vegetative state....”

“Persistent vegetative state, which is what the court has ruled, I say that I question it, and I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office here in the Capitol. And that footage, to me, depicted something very different than persistent vegetative state....”

“Once again, in the video footage -- which you can actually see on the website today -- she certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli that the neurologist puts forth.”

Excerpts from an interview Thursday with Matt Lauer on “Today” on NBC:

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Matt Lauer: “The long-awaited autopsy report on Terri Schiavo was released on Wednesday. It concluded that she was in a persistent vegetative state, suffered from severe and irreversible brain damage. You remember back in March ... you were on the floor of the Senate at that time, not only as a senator but a doctor. And in talking about Ms. Schiavo, you said, quoting you now, ‘She does respond,’ end quote. Were you wrong in your diagnosis?

Frist: “Well, first of all, I never made a diagnosis. I think it’s very important that we saw the autopsy today. It does give us the definitive information that we did not have at that point in time, and that’s why I think it is big news that she had totally irreversible brain damage, and we now have that information. All we were arguing for on the floor of the Senate is to get an accurate diagnosis before you withdraw a feeding tube from a live person....”

Lauer: “But when you stood on the floor and you said, “She does respond,” are you at all worried that you led some senators ... “

Frist: “No, I never said she responded. I said in our review, the court videotapes ... the same ones the other doctors reviewed, and I questioned, ‘Is their diagnosis correct?’ .... We had a presumptive diagnosis. I simply said, ‘Before withdrawing food -- killing her, in effect -- let’s make sure we have the right diagnosis.’ I never, never on the floor of the Senate made a diagnosis, nor would I ever do that.”

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