Comatose woman to be fed again

Florida governor orders nutrient tube reinstalled after special law is passed

October 22, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Six days after the feeding tube of a brain-damaged woman was removed in a case that pitted her husband against her parents, Gov. Jeb Bush ordered it reinserted yesterday after the state Legislature empowered him to do so. A judge later rejected a request by the woman's husband to overturn the governor's order.

The Legislature's extraordinary step overrides years of court rulings.

The woman, Terri Schiavo, began receiving intravenous hydration last night, after a day of wrenching debate in the Legislature. Schiavo was taken by ambulance from a hospice to a hospital in Clearwater, near Tampa, where doctors could not begin feeding her until she was adequately hydrated, her sister, Suzanne Carr, said.

"I'm overwhelmed, I'm grateful, I'm scared," Carr said. "I will sleep like a baby tonight, once I hear she's OK. But we know this might not be over."

Lawyers for Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael, promptly challenged the governor's stay, seeking an injunction in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He has sought the removal of her feeding tube since 1998, testifying that she told him she would never want to be kept alive artificially.

But her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, fought Michael Schiavo every step of the way, exhausting their legal options only last week. They have made videos of their daughter, now 39, appearing to smile, grunt and moan in response to her mother's voice, and follow a balloon with her eyes.

But most doctors say that people in vegetative states make such gestures involuntarily and have no cognitive function.

In the Capitol building yesterday afternoon, impassioned, often angry legislators debated whether they had the moral and legal authority to pass the law.

Many lawmakers drew on their own religious beliefs and experiences with death, sometimes choking up as they described the drawn-out illness of a parent or spouse.

James King, the Republican Senate president, gave all his members applications for living wills and urged them to fill them out immediately and to circulate such forms among their constituents.

"I really do hope that we've done the right thing," King said after the Senate passed the measure, 23-15. "I keep on thinking, what if Terri didn't want this to happen at all? May God have mercy on all of us."

Other lawmakers said that the Legislature was blatantly violating the separation of the executive and legal branches and that they were ashamed of the measure, especially since the Legislature had not heard evidence in the complicated case.

"This chamber is not the appropriate place to be the tryer of fact on an issue that just came to us this morning," said Sen. Steven Geller, a Democrat from Hallandale Beach. "You need to think of the precedent we are setting here."

Unlike most people at the center of right-to-die cases, Schiavo is not elderly, comatose or hooked up to a respirator. Florida's so-called right-to-die law allows courts to consider testimony about the wishes of someone on life support if the person left no written directive.

Although she can breathe on her own, Schiavo has depended on the tube for sustenance since 1990, when her heart stopped temporarily because of what some doctors diagnosed as a potassium deficiency. She was 26 and had not signed a living will.

For the past few years, she has resided at Hospice Woodside in Pinellas Park, about 20 miles southwest of Tampa.

On Monday, Michael Schiavo released a long statement explaining why he wanted his wife to die and saying that he, like the Schindlers, was grieving. He said that he had sought a cure for his wife for years, even experimenting with implanting electrodes in her brain to stimulate its function.

He said his wife had been tested three times to see whether she could swallow food on her own and had failed. When Bush submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Schindlers a few weeks ago, he argued that Terri Schiavo should undergo such tests before being allowed to die.

"I never wanted Terri to die," Michael Schiavo said in the statement. "I was hiding behind my hope, and selfishly ignoring Terri's wishes."

It was unclear who the prime mover behind the bill was: Bush, who has publicly sided with Terri Schiavo's parents and tried twice before to intervene on their behalf; or Johnnie Byrd, the Republican speaker of the House, who is running for the U.S. Senate and courting conservative votes. The House passed the measure 73-24.

The Legislature was supposed to discuss only economic development in this week's special session, but Bush expanded the call Monday after Byrd expressed eagerness to take up the Schiavo issue.

Legal scholars questioned the constitutionality of the bill, which was written to apply only to Terri Schiavo. Courts are often skeptical about legislation that benefits or burdens only one person. It is often considered a denial of equal protection and due process.

The legal situation becomes even more tangled, scholars said, when the legislation is not only retroactive but seeks to undo a judicial action. That can give rise to a showdown between the legislative and judicial branches. Historically, courts tend to win those fights.

Lars Noah, a law professor at the University of Florida, said the new law was unconstitutional: "The legislation interferes with the judicial power. The Legislature is not writing new rules. It's trying to unsettle a vested process."

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