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Life-and-death battle ends for Terri Schiavo

Friday, April 1, 2005

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. -- She died cradled by her husband, a beloved stuffed tabby under her arm, a bouquet of lilies and roses at her bedside -- after her brother was expelled from her room. In death as in life, no peace surrounded Terri Schiavo.

Fifteen years, one month and six days after her heart first stopped, this brain-damaged wife and daughter died in her hospice bed. At about 9 a.m. Thursday, the battle to the death that entangled the state and federal courts, the legislature, Congress, Florida's governor and the president of the United States finally came to a close.

The deathbed scene was described by George Felos, lawyer for her husband; he said Michael Schiavo excluded the brother, Bobby Schindler, because Schindler had objected strenuously when hospice workers asked him to step away so they could examine her.

Michael Schiavo, the lawyer said, wanted his wife to die in tranquility.

But a priest who had advised the Schindler family railed against Terri Schiavo's death -- "an atrocity," he said -- and scorned Michael's decision to remove her brother from the room. "His heartless cruelty continues until this very last moment," said the Rev. Frank Pavone.

The 41-year-old woman died 13 days after her feeding tube was disconnected in the longest and most heavily litigated right-to-die dispute in U.S. history.

"Mr. Schiavo's overriding concern here was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity," said Felos, who was also present at her death. "Mrs. Schiavo died a calm, peaceful and gentle death."

Schiavo suffered brain damage in 1990 and fell into what court-appointed doctors called a persistent vegetative state, with no real consciousness or chance of recovery, after a chemical imbalance caused her heart to stop. She had left no written instructions in the event she became disabled.

Her husband argued that she told him long ago that she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, disputed that, and held out hope for a miracle recovery for a daughter they said still laughed with them and struggled to talk.

Pinellas County Circuit Judge George W. Greer sided with her husband and authorized the removal of the feeding tube keeping her alive. It was disconnected March 18.

During the seven-year legal battle, federal and state courts repeatedly rejected extraordinary attempts at intervention by Florida lawmakers, Gov. Jeb Bush, Congress and President Bush on behalf of her parents.

Supporters of her parents, many of them anti-abortion activists and political conservatives, harshly criticized the courts. Many religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, said the removal of sustenance violated fundamental religious tenets.

About 40 judges in six courts were involved in the case at one point or another. Six times, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. As Schiavo's life ebbed away, Congress rushed through a bill to allow the federal courts to take up the case, and the president signed it March 21. But the federal courts refused to step in.

The case prompted many people to ponder what they would want if they, too, were in such a desperate medical situation, and many rushed to draw up living wills. The case also led to a furious debate over the proper role of government in life-and-death decisions, and whether Republicans in Congress violated their party's principles of limited government and deference to the states by getting involved.

In Washington on Thursday, the president was careful to extend condolences to Schiavo's "families" -- meaning both Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers -- even though he backed efforts to reconnect her feeding tube.

"I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others," Bush said.'

House Republican Leader Tom DeLay condemned the state and federal judges who refused to prolong her life, and warned that lawmakers "will look at an arrogant and out-of-control judiciary that thumbs its nose at Congress and the president."

"I never thought I'd see the day when a U.S. judge stopped feeding a living American so that they took 14 days to die," he said.

Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, said that Schiavo's death "is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society. For that, we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us."

Outside the hospice -- where over the past few weeks more than 50 protesters were arrested, many for trying to symbolically bring Schiavo food and water -- demonstrators wept, prayed and sang religious hymns. Some threw their protest signs down in disgust.

"You saw a murder happening," said one demonstrator, Dominique Hanks.

Schiavo's body was taken in an unmarked white van with police motorcycle escort to the Pinellas County medical examiner's office, where an autopsy was planned that both sides hoped would shed light on the extent of her brain damage and whether she was abused by her husband, as the Schindlers have argued.

In what was the source of yet another dispute between the husband and his in-laws, Michael Schiavo will get custody of the body and plans to have her cremated.

Michael Schiavo's brother, Scott Schiavo, said the ashes will be buried in an undisclosed location near Philadelphia so that her immediate family does not attend and turn the moment into a media spectacle. A funeral Mass, sought by the Schindlers, was tentatively scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday.

Before she was stricken, Terri Schiavo had recurring battles with weight, and her collapse at age 26 was believed to have been caused by an eating disorder. Her parents, who visited her nearly every day, reported their daughter responded to their voices, and video showed her appearing to interact with her family. But the court-appointed doctor said the noises and facial expressions were reflexes.

Both sides accused each other of being motivated by greed over a $1 million medical malpractice award from doctors who failed to diagnose the chemical imbalance.

Schiavo's feeding tube was briefly removed in 2001. It was reinserted after two days when a court intervened. In October 2003, the tube was removed again, but Gov. Bush rushed Terri's Law through the Legislature and had the tube reinserted after six days. The Florida Supreme Court later struck down the law as unconstitutional interference in the judicial system.

Schiavo lived in her brain-damaged state longer than two other young women whose cases brought right-to-die issues to the forefront.

Karen Quinlan lived for more than a decade in a vegetative state, brought on by alcohol and drugs in 1975 when she was 21. New Jersey courts let her parents take her off a respirator a year after her injury. Nancy Cruzan, who was 25 when a 1983 car crash put her in a vegetative state, lived nearly eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that her feeding tube could be withdrawn.

In both cases, however, the families agreed that lifesaving measures should be ended.


Associated Press reporters Allen Breed, Mike Schneider, Mark Long, Mitch Stacy and Ron Word contributed to this story.


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