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Euthanasia and Terri Schiavo

An overview

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Terri Schiavo was a 41-year-old severely disabled woman in Florida who was the focus of two massive religious, judicial and legislative efforts: one to keep her alive, the other to allow her to die. Her feeding tube was removed on 2005-MAR-19. She died at about 9:05 ET on MAR-31.

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As a teenager, Terri was quite overweight. In the late 1980s, she had lost 65 pounds and became very concerned that she might regain her excess weight. During early 1990, she suffered from bulimia, an eating disorder. She regularly purged her body of sustenance. This created a potassium imbalance in her body which induced a heart attack, which in turn temporarily starved her brain of oxygen. Courts and doctors appointed by the courts ruled that she was in a persistent vegetative state. "Patients in a persistent vegetative state lack integrated function of the cerebral cortex while retaining involuntary brain stem reflexes that regulate heart rate, digestive, circulatory, sleep and other involuntary bodily functions. Their behaviors are automatic, non-purposeful, uninhibited reflexes no longer under voluntary control by higher brain centers." 1 Unlike patients in a coma, patients in a persistent vegetative state can never recover.

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Medical assessment:

Leon Prockop, a professor of neurology at the University of Southern Florida, has studied Terri's CAT scans. He believes that Terri's life effectively ceased fifteen years ago. He said that "She has approximately 20% of her [total] brain tissue left inside her skull and the remaining tissue is damaged. The tissue that controls the higher brain functions is gone. It's disappeared." He continued: "Her death occurred some time ago. That's my opinion....She has lost all frontal lobe functions. In her case, there is a severe absence of brain tissue. This is not guesswork.....Her CAT scan shows a greater degree of brain damage than I have ever seen in a living person. That brain tissue cannot come back. It never has, and it never will." His view "coincides with the vast preponderance of expert medical opinion..." 9

On the other hand, Terri's family, and supporting lawyers, spiritual advisors and a very few physicians disagree. They believe that Terri is responsive to external stimuli, is conscious, and is aware of her surroundings. William Cheshire, a neurologist on the staff of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL supports this view. He observed Terri in person and has reviewed her medical history. However, he did not perform "a comprehensive neurological examination" which the Mayo Clinic declares is "the standard procedure for the evaluation of a comatose patient..." 9

Columnist Oakland Ross suggests " often seems the two sides are talking about two different women. Yet they are both talking about the same Terri Schiavo." 9

CitizenLink stated that: "Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin also said he found no evidence to contradict the diagnosis that Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state after her 1990 collapse."

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Developments leading up to her death:

Brain scans showed that the part of Schiavo's brain that controlled thought and voluntary movements had atrophied. Her brain stem, which regulates the body's automatic functions such as the heart beat, blood pressure, breathing, kidney function, eye blinking, etc. remained intact and functioning. 2 CAT scans showed that almost 90% of her cerebrum the "largest and most complex part of [the] brain [which is] involved in consciousness, thinking, speech and emotions" had been replaced by spinal fluid. Her cerebellum which "regulates muscular co-ordination, smooth movements, balance, posture," etc. was "severely degenerated."

Her husband, sister in law and brother in law recall her stated wish on two occasions that she be allowed to die, if she were ever in this situation. The courts have accepted this position. Her parents reject the assessment that she is in a persistent vegetative state or that she ever expressed such end-of-life beliefs. They feel that she was in a "minimally conscious state" i.e. Terri was aware of her environment, of other persons, and of her own bodily pain. She was capable of thinking, although she was unable to communicate the thoughts to others. Further, her parents believe that she could have regained some of her mental and physical functioning through therapy.

Terri was unable to eat or drink on her own. She had been supplied nourishment through a feeding tube that connects directly to her stomach. On three occasions in the past, her husband has obtained court approval to remove the tube and allow her to die by dehydration. By late 2005-MAR, the family, Florida courts, the U.S. Supreme Court, and Congress had been active in her case. Almost all legal approaches to require the re-insertion of the feeding tube appear to have been exhausted by the time of her death on MAR-31. Appeals as high as the U.S. Supreme Court were possible, but would undoubtedly have been unsuccessful.

Events from 2005-MAR-18 onward:

bullet MAR-18: At 1:45 ET, her feeding tube was removed for the third time. A Roman Catholic priest administered last rites. She was expected to die of dehydration sometime in very late March or very early April, if the feeding tube were not reinstalled.
bullet MAR-21: In an extraordinary intervention, Congress passed a bill that gave jurisdiction over Terri's fate to federal courts on 2005-MAR-21. Only three members were present to pass the bill in the Senate. The House voted 203 to 58 in favor of the bill. President Bush flew from Texas to Washington and signed it into law at about 01:30 hrs. The legislation requires that a federal judge, if requested by Terri's family, launch a new inquiry into the legal and medical questions surrounding Terri Schiavo. This law resulted in multiple series of unsuccessful appeals as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.
bullet MAR-25: Her father, Bob Schindler, said: "Terri is weakening. She's down to her last hours. Something has to be done and has to be done quick." Later, he said: "I told her that we're still fighting for her, and she shouldn't give up because we're not. But I think the people who are anxious to see her die are getting their wish." Lawyers and friends of Terri's parents have stated that her skin is flaking, she has a dry tongue, dry lips and sunken eyes. 3
bullet MAR-27: On Easter Sunday, governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) said that there was nothing more he can do. He said: "I cannot violate a court order. I don't have powers from the United States Constitution -- or for that matter from the Florida Constitution -- that would allow me to intervene after a decision has been made. I'm sad that she's in the situation that she's in. I feel bad for her family. My heart goes out to the Schindlers and, for that matter, to Michael [Schiavo], This has not been an easy thing for any, any member of the family. But most particularly for Terri Schiavo." 4
bullet MAR-28:
bullet Doctors started to administer morphine to Terri. This is not intended to eliminate pain, because it is extremely doubtful that she can feel discomfort. It is to ease her breathing. Some suggest that this use of morphine means that her attending medical professionals believe that she only has a day or two to live.
bullet Terri was again given the last rites of the Roman Catholic church.
bullet Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, and other conservative Christian activists, flew to Washington to attempt to have Congress enforce a congressional subpoena which they believe makes Terri Schiavo a legally protected federal witness. That subpoena was dismissed by George Greer, a Florida judge. This triggered a debate over the constitutional separation of powers in the U.S. between the judiciary and legislative branches.
bullet Randall Terry, the president of the Society for Truth and Justice, said: "What in the name of God is going on here, when the entire US Government prostrates itself at the feet of a tinpot judge named Greer?" 10
bullet George Felos, Michael Shiavo's lawer, said he had visited Schiavo for more than an hour Monday and said she looked "very peaceful. She looked calm. I saw no evidence of any bodily discomfort whatsoever. [Her breathing seemed] a little on the rapid side." Her eyes were sunken. 11
bullet MAR-31: By this date, a total of 47 persons, many of whom are children, had been arrested for trespassing. They attempted to bring water into the hospice where Terri Schiavo is being cared for. Their efforts are largely symbolic, because Terri is unable to swallow water or consume food. Michael Schiavo has spent days and nights at his dying wife's bedside since the feeding tube was removed. 5,11
bullet MAR-29:
bullet Late in the evening, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to consider a petition for a new hearing. Although past considerations by this court had been limited to legal matters, this one would be more broad ranging. It would look at the same evidence that the state judge reviewed.
bullet Jessie Jackson arrived in Florida and prayed with Terri's parents. He called her impending death an "injustice" and promised that he would call state senators who had opposed legislation to reinsert the feeding tube and ask them to reconsider. He said: "I feel so passionate about this injustice being done, how unnecessary it is to deny her a feeding tube, water, not even ice to be used for her parched lips. This is a moral issue and it transcends politics and family disputes." He said that he asked Michael Schiavo for permission to see Terri. He was allegedly denied. 11
bullet First lady, Laura Bush, said: "I just feel like the federal government has to be involved. It is a life issue that really does require government to be involved." 11
bullet Covenant News Wire Service claimed 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." 13 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.
bullet MAR-30:
bullet The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the petition. Judge Stanley F. Birch Jr. wrote: "While the members of her family and the members of Congress have acted in a way that is both fervent and sincere, the time has come for dispassionate discharge of duty." He criticized the actions of President Bush and Congress: "Despite sincere and altruistic motivations, the legislative and executive branches of our government have acted in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers' blueprint for the governance of a free people — our Constitution.12
bullet The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to hear an appeal.
bullet Jessie Jackson said in the presence of Terri's parents and siblings: "We ask God to sustain this family as they go through this gut-wrenching ordeal. We know that the innocent do suffer and that you need not be guilty to be crucified." 12
bullet MAR-31:
bullet The state of Florida had two or more appeals pending before a Florida appeals court. They ask that the feeding tube be reinstalled. They became moot when she died. 11
bullet The Washington Times reports that Florida Circuit Court Judge George Greer has received "a sea of death threats." Some of the state senators who voted against a bill to reinsert the feeding tube have also received death threats. Somebody has allegedly threatened to bomb the hospice if Terri dies. 12
bullet Terri Schiavo died just before 10 AM ET. In her last moments, Michael Schiavo asked Terri's brother and sister to leave the room. Some suggest that he did this out of spite by denying them access to Terri as she died. Michael and his attorney said that he did this because Terri's brother was becoming argumentative with him, and Michael wanted his last moments with the body of his wife to be peaceful.

It seems that the two "sides" were able to agree on nothing, during Terri Schiavo's life and death.

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Burial or cremation:

A battle is brewing over what to do with Terri's body after death. Michael Schiavo has arranged for her to be cremated, and for her ashes to be placed in his family plot near Philadelphia, PA where he and his wife met and were married. Michael Schindler told The Tampa Tribune in 2002: "She never wanted to be put in the ground with bugs." Terri's parents want a wake, an open-casket Roman Catholic funeral mass, and burial in western Florida so that they can visit the grave. Paul O'Donnell, a Franciscan monk and family spokesperson said: "Even in death, he isn't going to allow them a shrine, a place to go talk to her. He's taking her from them. Won't he at least give them her dead body?" Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry of Operation Rescue said: "He's a bastard,. it's sheer spite. He's moved on with his life. Why can't he give ...[her parents] this?" 5

Michael Schiavo has arranged to have an autopsy performed on his wife. He wanted to clear up some of the disagreements about Terri's medical condition. The autopsy showed that there is no evidence that her brain damage was caused by physical abuse, or harmful drugs or other substances as some commentators had suggested. As noted above, it seems that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state since the time of her collapse in 1990. She could never have regained even a minimally conscious state. She would never have been able to eat or drink if she had been given food by mouth. 14

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On a positive note:

One encouraging result of this situation is that increasing numbers of adults are preparing living wills to express their precise wishes in case they are similarly disabled.

There is always the possibility that Terri's tragedy will help focus public attention on the dangerous message spread by the media and their advertisers that a woman's value depends on them being so dangerously thin that their health is endangered. Author Jean Kilbourne has said: "Imagine if all this energy and media attention focused instead on the self-loathing and hatred of their own bodies that our culture generates in women, and the rampant eating disorders that often result. Now that might save the lives of many young women for whom it is not too late." 6,7

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References used:

  1. William Polk Cheshire, Jr., "Affidavit," 2005-MAR-23, at: This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  2. Tim Harper, "Judgment reserved in feeding-tube hearing," Toronto Star, 2005-MAR-22, Pages A1 & A9.
  3. 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:
  4. "Backers of Schiavo's parents head to Washington. Schindler spokesman disputes attorney over her condition," CNN News, 2005-MAR-27, at:
  5. Helen Kennedy, "Cremation uproar," New York Daily News, 20050-MAR-28
  6. Antonia Zerbisias, "All-out coverage of Schiavo wears thin," The Toronto Star, 2005-MAR-29, Page C6.
  7. Jean Kilbourne is the author of "Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel," Free Press, (2000). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  8. Oakland Ross, "Terri died 15 years ago, neurologists maintain," The Toronto Star, 2005-MAR-29, Page A6.
  9. Oakland Ross, "What has been going on in Terri Schiavo's head?," The Toronto Star, 2005-MAR-29, Front Page (A1).
  10. Jacqui Goddard, "Christians Rally at White House for Schiavo," 2005-MAR-28, at:
  11. "Court Agrees to Consider Schiavo Petition," Fox News, 2005-MAR-30.
  12. Jane Roh, "Supreme Court Denies Parents' Plea," Fox News, 2005-MAR-31, at:
  13. "Adulterer Michael Schiavo," Covenant News Wire Service, at:
  14. Pete Winn, "Schiavo Autopsy Finds No Evidence of Abuse," CitizenLink, Focus on the Family, 2005-JUN-15, at:

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

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Copyright 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-MAR-27
Latest update: 2005-JUN-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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