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Parents’ Side Has Vilified Husband

Times Staff Writer

“Michael, why are you afraid to let Terri live?”

The sign outside Woodside Hospice, where Terri Schiavo has been without food or water for six days, hints at the villainous motives protesters ascribe to her husband, Michael, in his quest to let her die after 15 years in what doctors have called a persistent vegetative state.

Demonized by his in-laws, antiabortion activists and the religious right, Michael Schiavo has become the target of accusations that he caused her heart attack and collapse with abusive, violent behavior; that he fabricated the story that she wouldn’t want to live this way only after collecting more than $1 million in a malpractice claim; that he has sabotaged her therapy and barred her friends and family from comforting visits; and that he wants her to die so he can marry a woman with whom he has lived for the last few years and fathered two children.

Michael Schiavo has vehemently denied the accusations of abuse, greed and heartlessness in interviews and to investigators, and an independent report to Gov. Jeb Bush and the judicial system two years ago said “the evidence is incontrovertible that he gave his heart and soul to her treatment and care.”

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Terri Schiavo, now 41, suffered a heart attack Feb. 25, 1990, the result of a potassium imbalance brought on by an eating disorder.

The heart attack temporarily cut off oxygen to her brain. Schiavo, now severely brain-damaged, can breathe on her own, but cannot eat or drink.

The exhaustive 2003 report by Jay Wolfson, professor of public health and medicine at the University of South Florida, noted that Schiavo took his wife to California for experimental treatment in fall 1990, when a thalamic stimulator was implanted in her brain. Some neurologists now consider that an obstacle to further MRI scans to assess her brain function.

Wolfson further detailed the chain of events that led to a falling-out between Michael Schiavo and his in-laws, Bob and Mary Schindler, after four years of extensive treatment led doctors to conclude that Terri Schiavo had no meaningful connection with her surroundings or prospects for improvement.

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In these waning days of the conflict over who has the right to make a life-or-death decision for Terri Schiavo, neither medical facts nor judicial rulings have lessened the vitriol from those who have sought to demonize her husband for his contention that she wouldn’t want to live this way.

And with each passing day, the animosity has ratcheted higher and the characterizations of Michael Schiavo have taken on an increasingly vicious tone.

“He’s blocked her parents from visiting for months on end. He won’t allow the shades to be opened in her room, so she’s in total darkness. He was a loving husband only for as long as it took to get the malpractice money, and now he just wants to get rid of her,” charged Carol Rubright, a Port Charlotte resident who makes the nearly two-hour trip to the hospice daily to show solidarity with the Schindlers.

The 1993 medical malpractice award in response to a petition filed by Michael Schiavo on his wife’s behalf created a trust in which $750,000 was deposited for Terri Schiavo’s medical care and upkeep and $300,000 went to her husband for his suffering and loss. Most of the treatment funds have been spent in the nearly 12 years since the award.

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Wolfson’s report said there was “no evidence in the record of the trust administration documents of any mismanagement of Theresa’s estate, and the records on this matter are excellently maintained.”

Crowd psychology experts say demonizing those with opposing views is common in such highly emotional confrontations as abortion rights and end-of-life decisions.

“This definitely tends to intensify over time,” said Jack Aiello, a Rutgers University psychology professor. Noting that judicial decisions have come down against those seeking to prolong Terri Schiavo’s life, Aiello said their decreasing options are “clearly fueling the fires.”

“The more strongly one side’s beliefs are held, the more likely it is to perceive the other side as an exaggeration of all that is wrong,” he said of those who oppose Michael Schiavo’s position and accuse him of planning celebrations after his wife’s demise.

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The attacks on his character have become talk-show fodder and high-profile commentary, from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages to website chat rooms and morning drive-time call-ins. It has also raised the emotional temperature among those standing vigil outside the hospice, where 60 to 80 protesters chant and sing in hopes that Terri Schiavo’s life will be extended and where a handful of right-to-die advocates denounce the intrusions.

Some have come to the husband’s defense, despite the overwhelming sentiment against him at the vigil.

“Michael has done everything possible for Terri over the years,” said registered nurse Angie Olson, who doesn’t know Schiavo personally but has worked with his colleagues.

“He was a respiratory therapist before she had the accident, and you can’t tell me they never talked about life-and-death decisions. That is something he would have been dealing with every day.”

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Michael Schiavo has given few interviews and could not be reached Wednesday, as he was reportedly in the family quarters of the hospice to spend time by his wife’s bedside -- alternating with her parents and siblings. But in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times last week at the offices of his lawyers, Schiavo, a 41-year-old nurse, said one of the most painful elements of the controversy over his wife’s future was the accusation by his in-laws that he had mistreated her. “None of it is true,” he told the paper in the March 16 interview.

Other attempts this week to reach Michael Schiavo and his attorney, George J. Felos, were unsuccessful. No one answered a knock at Schiavo’s Clearwater home, and Felos’ voice mail was full, rejecting further messages.

Michael Schiavo’s brother, Brian, has also been critical of the government intrusions and activist smearings, telling a Fox TV interviewer that they “should be ashamed of themselves” for making a painful and emotional situation worse.

But most of those sporadically standing vigil outside the hospice as courts considered conflicting legal motions described the man who is Terri Schiavo’s legal guardian as well as her husband of 20 years as evil incarnate.

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He is compared with Scott Peterson, convicted of killing his pregnant wife, to Nazi proponents of euthanizing the infirm, to Southern racists who sought to deprive fellow citizens of constitutional protections. Posters abound with provocative barbs such as, “Is Florida the Next Auschwich [sic]?” and “Michael, are you partying yet?”

Terri Schiavo’s brother, Bobby Schindler, has used the spotlight to draw attention to claims that his sister suffered bone fractures and other abuses. A state court this month rejected a state agency’s effort to investigate, saying the allegations had previously been found to be groundless.

The round-the-clock protest of legal rulings against further medical intervention has become, day by day and one appeal after another, an incubator for vilifying Michael Schiavo and for exploring conspiracy theories.

Some have come from the Schindlers themselves. In a petition filed Feb. 28 seeking a divorce for their daughter, they contended that her marriage to Michael Schiavo was “irretrievably broken” because he had committed adultery and undermined his wife’s care and comfort.

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Michael Schiavo met Theresa Marie Schindler in 1982, when she was a 19-year-old freshman at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania and he was preparing for a career in nursing. They married in November 1984, and Michael Schiavo was initially so close to his in-laws that the newlyweds lived in their home and moved with them to Florida less than two years later.

Conservative groups and disabled advocacy organizations have disseminated garish parodies of the husband they see as relishing his wife’s potential demise.

“I, Michael Schiavo, Am Starving My Wife Today (and I feel good),” said the headline of a mock letter distributed by a group called the Hospice Patients Alliance.

In the St. Petersburg Times interview, Schiavo accused lawmakers of “pandering to the religious groups and the antiabortion groups and the Christian Coalition. They’re doing this for the votes,” he concluded.

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A few of those gathered outside the hospice this week supported the beleaguered husband and his cause of allowing his wife to escape what they believe is a life of hopeless incapacity.

Said Tim Harmon, a Tampa hairstylist hoisting an “I support Michael Schiavo” poster in the hostile crowd: “I think they’re desperate and that’s why they are making all of these appalling accusations. If there was any truth to them, why didn’t they mention it years ago?”


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