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THE NATION

Florida Gov. Orders Feeding Tube

Law is quickly passed to give Jeb Bush authority to put Terri Schiavo back on life support.

October 22, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, acting under emergency authority approved earlier in the day, ordered a feeding tube restored Tuesday to a brain-damaged woman recently taken off life support at her husband's request.

Bush's order came at the end of two days of rapid legislative and executive action in the case of Terri Schiavo, 39, who has been in a coma-like state since 1990. Critics said the law that authorized Bush's action might be unconstitutional.

"This is a response to a tragic situation," Bush said. "People are responding to cries for help, and I think it's legitimate."

In the bitterly contested right-to-die case that has drawn national attention, Schiavo's husband, Michael, got the final green light from a Florida appeals court last week to have the tube removed. Her parents had opposed him in the courts for five years, contending that their daughter could be rehabilitated.

As she lay in a Pinellas Park hospice, Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was taken out Oct. 15. Experts said she might take as long as two weeks to die of dehydration. She had been fed via a tube since 1990, when she suffered heart failure that cut off oxygen to her brain and left her in a vegetative state.

Terri Schiavo began receiving fluids at a Clearwater hospital Tuesday -- preparation for feeding through a tube to resume.

Outside the hospice north of St. Petersburg where the woman was being cared for, well-wishers cheered and hugged each other after learning of the vote by the Florida Senate.

"This is blessed," said Bob Schindler, Terri Schiavo's father.

Michael Schiavo offered no immediate comment Tuesday. His lawyer, George Felos, said Schiavo was "deeply troubled, angry and saddened that his wife's wishes have become a political ping-pong. He, as many others, is absolutely stunned at the course of events."

Felos filed a request for an injunction with two judges, but was turned down both times.

"It is simply inhumane and barbaric to interrupt her death process," Felos said. "Just because Terri Schiavo is not conscious doesn't mean she doesn't have dignity."

Florida's governor normally does not have the power to reverse a judge's ruling. But the circumstances of the Schiavo case are such -- her husband says she would rather die, but she left no living will -- that some members of the Republican-controlled Legislature wanted Bush, also a Republican, to be able to intervene.

"The Constitution is supposed to protect the people of this state," said state Rep. Sandra L. Murman, a Tampa Republican who co-sponsored the new law. "Who is protecting this girl?"

On Monday, the state House of Representatives voted, 68 to 23, to give Bush 15 days to order a one-time stay on the withholding of food or water in cases like Schiavo's, in which a person in a persistent vegetative state has left no instructions about what should be done and euthanasia is opposed by a family member. The text of the law was so narrowly written as to apply, in effect, only to her.

Florida's Senate on Tuesday adopted similar legislation, by a vote of 23 to 15, clearing the way for the governor, the younger brother of President Bush, to act. Some Democrats vigorously disagreed with the new law, calling it unconstitutional, though Republicans leaders in the Legislature said the state needed to be able to step in and preserve a life in a case where a judge might have erred.

"It is a direct assault on the separation of powers," Democratic state Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach attorney, told CNN. "I mean, the governor will be able to essentially say, 'I disagree with the courts, so I will rule differently.' And I think anybody who has been in junior high civics class knows that is not the way our nation and this state is founded."

Democratic state Sen. Steve Geller, a Hallandale Beach lawyer, said Florida's Legislature had preempted the courts, though it held no hearings and had little if any first-hand knowledge about the case. "The sanctity of the family," and the rights of Terri Schiavo's husband, Geller said, were breached. He said he expected the law to be declared unconstitutional.

"Someone needs to be a voice for our most vulnerable citizens like Terri Schiavo," countered Republican state Rep. John Stargel, who co-sponsored the law, he said, "to provide relief for a victim of legal dehydration and starvation death."

However, some in Tallahassee admitted they acted with no precise notion as to what the incapacitated woman, who is incapable of speech, would have desired for herself.

"I hope, I really do hope, we have done the right thing," said Senate President James E. King, a Jacksonville Republican. "I keep on thinking, what if Terri really didn't want this done at all. May God have mercy on all of us." Stargel, in a telephone interview, said the law empowered a state judge to appoint a new guardian for Terri Schiavo to replace her husband.

The new guardian will report on her condition and her prognosis to the governor, who will decide whether the feeding tube should remain.

"The stay [on removing the tube] will stay in effect until the governor makes his determination," Stargel said. "Another governor could always remove the stay," the Florida lawmaker noted, but Terri Schiavo will now probably be returned to artificial life support.

Schindler and his wife, Mary, say their daughter reacts to them and could be taught how to eat and drink. They have accused their son-in-law of trying to remove the tube so he can pursue a relationship with another woman and keep more than $1 million in medical malpractice settlements.

Hours before doctors removed Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, her parents asked Bush to do what he could to keep her alive.

*

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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