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Euthanasia and Terri Schiavo

Activities by the state and federal courts, Congress, and the state of Florida

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Florida court activities:

This case was brought before various state courts in Florida. "Nineteen different judges at various times considered the Schindler's request on appeal in six state courts. All have sided with Michael Schiavo" and his request to allow his wife to die in peace. 8 In each instance, the court recognized the testimony of medical experts that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state and that there was no possibility of her improvement. They have also recognized that her husband, Michael Schiavo, had the authority to make end-of-life decisions for his wife. They have authorized him to remove her feeding tube on three occasions.

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Congressional activities:

Congressional activity sprang to life after other approaches to preserve Schiavo's life through Florida courts failed. There were few additional court actions that could be taken. The Republican-controlled state legislature appeared unlikely to take further actions. A House bill was brought before Congress  which would have applied to all persons in a situation like Terri Schiavo. A second bill was introduced to the Senate that would apply only to Schiavo. The latter legislation was eventually passed and signed into law by the President. 12

A judge from the federal district court in Tampa, FL was selected at random to hear the case. The law states that the court, after weighing the suit's merits, "shall issue such declaratory and injunctive relief protect (Schiavo's) rights." This can be interpreted in two ways:
bullet Some assume that the court would order the immediate reinsertion of the feeding tube.
bullet Others assume that Terri's rights include the right of privacy and to die in peace.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) issued a statement saying: "Congressional leaders have no business substituting their judgment for that of multiple state courts that have extensively considered the issues in this intensely personal family matter."

Republicans have traditionally:
bullet Been reluctant to initiate states-rights conflicts by imposing the will of Congress over state legislatures and courts,
bullet Been reluctant to Interfere with spousal privileges within marriage, and
bullet Promoted a limited role for federal courts in the past.

However, these principles were bypassed in Terri Schiavo's case. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, (R-TX) referred to the bill as a "Palm Sunday Compromise." He said: "It won't take a miracle to help Terri Schiavo. It will only take the medical care and therapy that all patients deserve....Every hour is terribly important to Terri Schiavo."

Rep. Barney Frank, (D-MA) expects that the bill will establish a legal precedent. "Every aggrieved party in any similar litigation now will go to Congress, come to Congress and ask us to make a series of decisions. This is a terribly difficult decision which we are, institutionally, totally incompetent to make. And to allow ideology to triumph in that context is a shame." In an apparent criticism of Republican lawmakers, he added: "We're not doctors. We just play them here on C-SPAN." 1

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Federal Court activities:

U.S. District Judge James Whittemore heard arguments for two hours on 2005-MAR-21 from attorneys for Terri Schiavo's parents and husband. David Gibbs, an attorney for the parents, said that allowing Terri Schiavo to die by starvation and dehydration would be "a mortal sin" under Terri's Roman Catholic beliefs. They have requested an injunction to order the immediate re-insertion of the feeding tube. Gibbs said: "It is a complete violation to her rights and to her religious liberty, to force her in a position of refusing nutrition." But Judge Wittemore responded: "I think you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that you have a substantial likelihood" of the parents' lawsuit succeeding. George Felos, an attorney for husband Michael Schiavo, testified that the case has been repeatedly heard in state courts who have always ruled for the husband. He also said that forcing Terri to endure another re-insertion of the tube would violate her civil rights. He said: "Every possible issue has been raised and re-raised, litigated and re-litigated. It's the elongation of these proceedings that have violated Mrs. Schiavo's due process rights."

Judge Whittemore issued his ruling very early on the morning of MAR-22. He denied the parent's request for an injunction.

Within hours, the parents had appealed the decision to a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

bullet David Gibbs wrote for Terri's parents: "Where, as here, death is imminent, it is hard to imagine more critical and exigent circumstances. Terri is fading quickly and her parents reasonably fear that her death is imminent."
bullet Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, wrote that an injunction to restore nutrition "would be a horrific intrusion upon Mrs. Schiavo's personal liberty."
bullet The Federal Justice Department also filed a statement with the court, saying an injunction was "plainly warranted" to carry out the wishes of Congress. They also stated that unless the feeding tube is reinserted quickly, Schiavo may die before the courts can resolve the issue. "No comparable harm will be caused" by letting Schiavo live while the case is reviewed."
bullet Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, praised the ruling, saying: "What this judge did is protect the freedom of people to make their own end-of-life decisions without the intrusion of politicians." 2
bullet CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen said: "No matter what this court decides, the case will go next to Justice Anthony Kennedy at the U.S. Supreme Court. He will have the option of rejecting the case himself or of granting the injunction, even temporarily, or getting his colleagues to decide whether to take the case outright. This process, too, could take a few hours at minimum.'' 3

At about 3:30 PM on MAR-23, the three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the parents' request by a vote of 2 to 1. They ruled that Terri's parents "...failed to demonstrate a substantial case on the merits of any of their claims....There is no denying the absolute tragedy that has befallen Mrs. Schiavo. We all have our own family, our own loved ones, and our own children. However, we are called upon to make a collective, objective decision concerning a question of law." 4,5

Terri Schiavo's parents immediately asked for an emergency rehearing of the case before the entire court. The court responded within hours, ruling 10 to 2 to not reinsert the tube. As is normal in appeals like this, the full court did not explain its decision.

Late on MAR-29, the court agreed to hear an appeal by Terri's parents. They denied the appeal on MAR-30.

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U.S. Supreme Court activities:

The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court late on MAR-23. In their appeal, Terri's parents said that their daughter faces an unjust and imminent death because of the decision by her husband to remove the feeding tube. Republican Congressional leaders prepared an amicus curia (friend of the court) brief to the Supreme Court in support of Terri's parents.

The emergency request first went to Justice Anthony Kennedy. As in two previous instances involving Terri Schiavo, the matter was taken before the entire Supreme Court. At about 11:30 ET on 2005-MAR-24, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal. This is the third time that the court has refused to become involved. As usual, it gave no reasons for its decision.

Senator Bill Frist (TN) said: "I'm saddened by the decision of the court to reject Terri Schiavo's case for life despite a compelling case for reexamination of the medical evidence. It is a sad day for her loving family and for their innocent and voiceless daughter." 7

Michael Schiavo said: "The status quo today is that Mrs. Schiavo is exactly where she would want to be; she has been released from unwanted, intrusive medical procedures according to her wishes. Preservation of the status quo would allow her to die in peace, and to maintain her dignity and autonomy. Petitioners [the Schindlers], however, ask this court to upset the peace that Mrs. Schiavo has attained, to reverse the fulfillment of her own wishes, and to dismantle 8 years of painstaking work by courts in both the Florida system and the federal system." 7

Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX), the House Majority Leader and Representative F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee wrote issued a joint statement about the Supreme Court decision. They felt "sadness and disappointment...Sadly, Mrs. Schiavo will not receive a new and full review of her case as the legislation required. [They] strongly believe that the court erred in reaching its conclusion and that once again they have chosen to ignore the clear intent of Congress." 10

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Florida government activity:

The Florida legislature passed a bill in 2003 that is popularly referred to as "Terri's Law." It gave authority to the governor to order her feeding tube to be reinserted. The bill was signed into law by the governor, but was later declared unconstitutional by the courts for two reasons: it delegated legislative power to the governor, and violated Terri Shiavo's right to privacy.

The Florida House passed a bill in mid-2005-MAR that would require medical personnel to supply food and water to all patients in a persistent vegetative state unless they had previously written a "living will" that directed that they be allowed to die. The vote was 78 to 37. The Senate defeated a similar bill on MAR-23 by a much closer vote of 21 to 18. It had a narrower focus than the House bill; it would only apply to cases where families disagree on a patient's wishes.

Some responses:

bullet Senator Les Miller (D) said: "By the time the ink is dry on the governor's signature, it will be declared unconstitutional, just like it was before. So I don't see anything or any language that can persuade my vote."
bullet Senator Dennis Jones, (R) said: "This bill doesn't belong here. This decision belongs between the courts and the family."
bullet Senator Jim King, (R) said: "To be kept alive artificially above and beyond your wishes and the wishes you expressed to your family -- that is cruel and unusual punishment."
bullet Senator Burt Saunders (R) said: "I don't believe I'm voting to end a life. I believe I'm voting to recognize the sanctity of life ... to let people die peacefully."
bullet One of Michael Schiavo's lawyers, George Felos, predicted that if the law were passed, the state Supreme Court will declare it unconstitutional. He told the Florida Sun-Sentinel: "This is purely a knee-jerk response to the growing political clout of the far right, and it's tragic, to say the least, that legislators don't have any concern about the constitutionality of the acts they pass." 6

Covenant News Wire Service claims that Terri's parent's legal team had met with Florida Governor Jeb Bush multiple times, trying to persuade him to charge Michael Schiavo with adultery. Michael allegedly started to live with another woman about five years after his wife was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state with no chance of recovery. He and his new partner have had two children together. Under Florida law, section 798.01: "Whoever lives in an open state of adultery shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree." 15 There is some doubt that this law is constitutional. In Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state governments cannot necessarily criminalize what it regards as immoral behavior if that behavior is done by consensual adults, in private.

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Appeals before Florida courts:

On 2005-APR-24, Governor Jeb Bush (R) sought court approval for the Florida Department of Children and Families to take custody of Terri, apparently with the intent of reinserting the feeding tube. It is based on  the assessment of a neurologist who observed Terri but did not examine her. According to Fox News: "The neurologist, William Cheshire of the Mayo Clinic (search) in Jacksonville, is a bioethicist who is also an active member in Christian organizations, including two whose leaders have spoken out against the tube's removal. Ronald Cranford of the University of Minnesota, a neurologist who was among those who made a previous diagnosis of Schiavo, said 'there isn't a reputable, credible neurologist in the world who won't find her in a vegetative state'." 7

Judge Greer handed down his decision in the early afternoon of MAR-24. "He denied a petition by the state and Governor Jeb Bush to take custody of Schiavo."  7,8 Ken Connor, attorney for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, commented: "They were asking the court to take into account Dr. William Cheshire's assessment that Terri appears to have been misdiagnosed, and is not actually in a persistent vegetative state, but is in a minimally conscious state. Judge Greer seems to be of a mind 'Don't confuse me with the facts, my mind's made up.' He thumbed his nose at the U.S. Congress when they asked him to delay the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration even though they indicated that Terri was both the subject and object of their investigation."

Jan LaRue, lawyer at Concerned Women for America said: "It's tragic that the Supreme Court's 'evolving standards of decency' haven't evolved enough to protect Terri Schiavo. You'd think that a Court that prohibits states from executing retarded, convicted murderers would prohibit the state-ordered death of an innocent woman when there's so little evidence of her wishes. You couldn't establish probable cause for a search warrant based on the stale and highly suspect hearsay statements in this case. How could any court find it clear and convincing evidence sufficient to order a woman's death by starvation? If this satisfies constitutional due process, God help us." She concluded: "Even if we knew that's what Terri wanted, Florida law makes aiding and abetting a suicide a felony, and there's no black-robed exemption." 9

Judge Greer's decision was appealed to U.S. District Court Judge James Whittemore on MAR-25. He rejected the appeal, saying that the parents could not establish "...a substantial likelihood of success on the merits" of their case. He also noted "...the difficulties and heartbreak the parties have endured throughout this lengthy process."  A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to issue an injunction to reinsert the feeding tube. They determined that they had already ruled on most of the issues raised in the current appeal, and that other issues raised did not apply to this case.

On MAR-25, still another "emergency motion for injunction and immediate relief" was filed with Judge George Greer. It was based on belief that Terri had tried to verbalize her end of life wishes by saying "I want to live." Judge Greer ruled that the "Respondents have waived their right to raise Terri Schiavo's alleged verbilization when they failed to present the affidavits at the March 23, 3005 hearing." He also ruled that Terri's apparent response to stimuli, limited vocalizations, and changing of facial expressions are not "a cognitive response but rather something akin to a person jerking his/her hand off a hot stove long before he/she has thought about it. Evidence on the stimulus issue and the random verbalizations were a feature of the prior trials and have been considered by this court." Judge Greer also analyzed an affidavit by the inventor of a device which attempts to use "the modulated equivalent of prevocalized thoughts" which it translates into words. Judge Greer determined that the device "is for patients with cognitive ability whose ability to vocalize is lost. Terri Schiavo is just the opposite."  He considered an affidavit by a doctor who suggested that hyperbaric oxygen therapy might improve Terri's condition. Greer noted that the allegations in the affidavit "have nothing to do with this case and have also been previously considered by this Court." Judge Greer denied an injunction to reinsert Terri's feeding tube. 14

Various other motions have been filed with different courts. Appeals to courts as high as the U.S. Supreme Court were possible, but would undoubtedly have been be unsuccessful.

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Status of Terri Schiavo:

Her father, Bob Schindler, said on the morning of MAR-25: Terri is weakening. She's down to her last hours. Something has to be done and has to be done quick." Lawyers and friends of Terri's parents have stated that her skin is flaking, she has a dry tongue, dry lips, bleeding eyes, a bleeding tongue, and sunken eyes. 11 George Felos, attorney for Michael Schiavo denied reports that her tongue and eyes were bleeding. He said: "She is calm. She is peaceful. She is resting comfortably." 13

Some have suggested that her body will reach the point of no return during Easter weekend (MAR-25 to 27). That is, a decline resulting in death becomes inevitable even if nourishment is restarted. David Gibbs, an attorney for Terri's parents said: "Time is moving quickly and it would appear most likely ... that Terri Schiavo will pass the point that she will be able to recover over this Easter weekend." 13

At 9:05 Et on the morning of 2005-MAR-31, Terri Schiavo died.

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Governor orders investigation:

Governor Jeb Bush (R) asked State Attorney Bernie McCabe to investigate the circumstances of Terri Schiavo's collapse in 1990, in order to determine if there was any criminal activity. He concluded that there was none. Governor Bush wrote: "Based on your conclusions, I will follow your recommendation that the inquiry by the state be closed."

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References used:

  1. Gail Gibson, "GOP maneuver in Schiavo case stirs controversy," The Baltimore Sun, 2005-MAR-19, at:
  2. "Schiavo Bill Fails in Fla. Senate," Fox News, 2005-MAR-23, at:
  3. "Schiavo Case In Appeals Court," CBS News, 2005-MAR-22, at:
  4. "11th Circuit Court rejects Schiavo appeal," Covenant News Wire Service, 2005-MAR-23, at:
  5. "Theresa Schiavo v. Michael Schiavo," 11th Circuit ruling, at: **
  6. "Florida Senate rejects Terri bill. Lawmakers intervene 1 day before feeding tube removal," WorldNetDaily, 2005-MAR-17, at:
  7. "Schiavo's Parents Turn to Supreme Court," Fox News, 2004-MAR-24, at: (this essay has since been over-written).
  8. "Terri Schiavo," Wikipedia, at:
  9. Pete Winn, "Legal Options Almost Gone for Schiavo," CitizenLink, 2005-MAR-24, at:
  10. Abby Goodnough & Maria Newman, "Supreme Court Rejects Request to Reinsert Feeding Tube," New York Times, 2005-MAR-24, at:
  11. Mike Schneider, "Schindlers Press Legal Battle As Daughter Nears Death. Legal appeals continue as Terri Schiavo nears death."  The Day, New London CT, 2005-MAR-26, at:
  12. Text of "Schiavo Act" for the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo," S. 653, 2005-MR-17, at:
  13. "Terri's Parents Plan New Court Appeal," Fox News, 2005-MAR-26, at:
  14. "Re: The guardianship of Theresa Marie Schiavo, Incapacitated," Circuit Court for Pinellas County, FL., 2005-MAR-26, at: **
  15. "Adulterer Michael Schiavo," Covenant News Wire Service, at:
  16. "No Criminal Wrongdoing in Schiavo Collapse, Prosecutor Concludes," LifeSiteNews, 2005-JUL-08, at:

** This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 

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Additional information:

bullet FindLaw has special coverage of the Terri Schiavo case, including court documents, descriptions of the lawyers involved, health care directives (living wills), medical web sites, etc. See:
bullet The Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation advocates in favor of Terri Schindler's continued life. See:
bullet The National Right to Life web site has a section on "saving Terri Schindler Schiavo." See:
bullet The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida is covering Terri Schiavo's case at:
bullet Abstract Appeal is a web blog devoted to Florida law and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. They attempt to help people understand the legal side of the issue. See:

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Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics > Euthanasia > Terri Schiavo > here

or: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Suicide menu > Euthanasia > Terri Schiavo > here

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Copyright 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-MAR-21
Latest update: 2005-JUL-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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