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A Battle for Control of the Feeding Tube

October 23, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — As Terri Schiavo received nourishment through a new feeding tube Wednesday, debate raged about whether Gov. Jeb Bush and state lawmakers had done the right thing, or the politically expedient one, in preventing the brain-damaged woman's death.

"The courts should be deciding such cases, not a legislature jumping in," said Bill Allen, professor of bioethics and law at the University of Florida. "It would be like the Colorado Legislature deciding whether Kobe Bryant is guilty or not based only on what they have seen on TV."

But Denise Kuhn, a staff member for Republican state Rep. Sandra L. Murman of Tampa, said the thousands of e-mails received by her office in Tallahassee were running 9 to 1 in favor of intervening to keep Schiavo alive, including "lots of thank yous" for the unusual law passed Tuesday.

The 39-year-old woman's case was being scrutinized for its legal, medical and political ramifications, as well as for its potency as a media-driven event -- literally a life-and-death story involving a helpless woman and the president's brother.

"This subject is one of those where the rough edges of the conservative and liberal philosophies collide," said Daryl Moen, professor of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "There are certain stories that are emotional and central to the public debate: abortion, the right to die, capital punishment. This one fits right in there."

Effectively overruling a Florida judge's decision, lawmakers in Tallahassee on Tuesday rushed through a bill, designed to apply only to Schiavo, that gave Bush the power to order her feeding tube reinstated. The governor promptly did so, though the woman's husband, who had been appointed her guardian by a court, said she never would have wanted to remain alive in such circumstances.

Schiavo, whose feeding tube was disconnected Oct. 15, was taken from a hospice in Pinellas Park to a hospital in nearby Clearwater so she could once again be given tube-fed water and nourishment. Her father, Bob Schindler, insisted Wednesday that his daughter was "alert, active, a live human being." Both parents had strenuously opposed the tube's removal.

"We have close to 15 doctors who are on record with the courts saying she can improve and will improve," Schindler said.

However, George Felos, an attorney for husband Michael Schiavo, said Florida's Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature had flouted the "fundamental right to make our own medical treatment choices." He also said there was no hope for the woman's recovery.

Terri Schiavo has been in a vegetative state since heart failure in 1990 cut off oxygen to her brain.

"If you look at a brain scan of Terri, where her cerebral cortex used to be is a black hole filled with spinal fluid," Felos said. "Terri was almost a week into her death process.... She may have already suffered massive organ failure and kidney damage. What this may have done is just prolonged her death sentence."

A feeding tube was reinserted into the woman's abdomen during a brief stay at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. Wednesday evening, she was taken back to the hospice that had cared for her for several years. Her family visited her there, in a Clearwater suburb, Wednesday night.

Terri Schiavo's brother, Bob Schindler Jr., said his sister was "alert and responsive" as family members hugged and kissed her during their visit.

Her father said he hoped his daughter would recover from being without food or water.

For some observers, the whirlwind action by the Legislature and governor on one person's behalf were proof of the political clout wielded by right-to-life groups, who bombarded Tallahassee with e-mails in support of the emergency law.

The St. Petersburg Times denounced House Speaker Johnnie Byrd in an editorial, saying the Republican who led the campaign "to save Terri Schiavo" was engaging in "immoral politics" to further his U.S. Senate hopes.

Byrd's press secretary, Nicole de Lara, rejected that charge Wednesday.

"The life of a young woman was hanging in the balance earlier this week, and Republicans and Democrats alike threw off political ambitions in an attempt to do the right thing," de Lara said.

A Pinellas County judge on Tuesday gave Schiavo's husband and his lawyer five days to challenge the new law in court. "We believe that a court sooner or later -- we hope sooner -- will find this law to be unconstitutional," Felos told NBC's "Today" show.

Allen, the University of Florida professor, said the law passed Tuesday flew in the face of a 1990 decision by the Florida Supreme Court that authorized the cessation of food and water to another woman in a persistent vegetative state, and whose friend testified she would not have wished to be kept alive.

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