The Battle for Terri

Wesley J. Smith | The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Battle for Terri

OCTOBER 21, 2003 may have been the most important day in 39-year-old Terri Schiavo's life. She had been without any food or water for six days, per the order of Judge George Greer of the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in Clearwater, Florida. Terri's family believed she was holding up well. But her body could surely not take much more of being deprived of all fluids.

In Tallahassee, a furious political debate was raging. The previous night, Governor Jeb Bush and speaker of the Florida House Johnnie Byrd had pushed "Terri's Bill" successfully through the House in an emergency session. The bill was now in the Florida Senate. If it passed, Bush, as governor, would be authorized to immediately issue an executive order restoring Terri's tube-supplied food and water.

But although the bill was moving through the Senate at the political speed of light, for supporters of Terri's life, it seemed a glacial pace. Every minute was one more minute Terri was drying out.

AS I LISTENED to the debate over the Internet, I could see the tug of war. On one side were many bioethicists, members of the medical intelligentsia, "right to die" advocates, Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, and his attorney, George Felos. On the other were disability rights advocates, right to lifers, Governor Jeb Bush, Terri's parents and their stalwart lawyer, Patricia Anderson, and the tens of thousands of people from all over the country and the world whose months of insistent emails and telephone calls had resulted in such overwhelming political pressure that Florida's government had felt compelled to act.

As the debate raged, some senators opposed the bill, believing that a husband should be permitted to make this tragic decision. But didn't they know that this particular husband, Michael Schiavo, was engaged to be married and already had one child with his fiancé (with another on the way)? Didn't they know he had denied Terri rehabilitation after promising a medical malpractice jury he would provide her with just such care? Didn't they know he wouldn't even let the nursing home personnel clean her teeth?

No, of course they didn't. How could they? This terrible issue had been sprung on them unfairly on extremely short notice. But there had been no other way. Terri's life had literally hung in the balance.

Others worried that the "process" was being violated. The courts had spoken. No matter what we might think, the legislature should stay out of it, they intoned.

But legislative actions to circumvent unpopular court rulings are part of our system of checks and balances. Few complained, for example, when Congress recently passed legislation to override the federal courts after two judges refused to permit the national telemarketing "do not call" list to go into effect.

Finally, Terri's Bill passed by a huge margin in the Senate, and after a brief reconciliation with the House version, the bill became "Terri's Law." But if the supporters of Terri's life thought that this meant Terri was ipso facto saved, they were being naive. In the legal and political battles over the culture of death, nothing is easy. Rehydrating Terri would be no exception.

THE STRUGGLE then moved to the hospice in which Terri has been living for three years. The administration was served with Executive Order 03-201, signed by Governor Bush stating in part:

Effective immediately, all medical facilities and personnel providing medical care for Theresa Schiavo, and all those acting in concert or participation with them, are hereby directed to immediately provide nutrition and hydration to Theresa Schiavo by means of a gastronomy tube, or by any other method determined to be appropriate in the reasonable judgment of a licensed physician.

Was the order being followed? Had the hospice hooked up an IV to begin the rehydration process? No one knew. Michael Schiavo is in complete control of Terri's person and her parents are often kept in the dark about what is happening to her.

Late in the afternoon, members of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrived with an ambulance that whisked Terri away to a hospital, where it was expected, her feeding tube would be reimplanted. But then, the roller coaster that has been the Schiavo case took another sickening plunge. A court hearing had been scheduled. Michael's lawyers were requesting an immediate restraining order preventing Terri from being treated. Even though Terri's supporters had been told the rehydration had already begun, a doctor had actually refused the job. Despite Terri's Law, Terri remained untreated, slowly dehydrating to death.

AT 8:30 P.M., JUDGE DOUGLAS BAIRD of the Florida Sixth Judicial Circuit began a hearing that would determine the immediate fate of Terri's Law. Meanwhile, it became clear why doctors had refused to reconnect Terri's feeding tube or even begin an IV line to provide her with desperately needed fluid: Deborah Bushnell, one of Michael's lawyers, had faxed a letter to virtually every doctor in Pinellas County in which she threatened to sue any physician who reconnected Terri's feeding tube or otherwise treated her. The chilling intent behind the letter worked. Even though Terri's Law protected doctors from liability, the hospital felt compelled to seek legal advise.

Finally, at about 9:00 P.M., there came news: The doctors had inserted an IV. Terri was again receiving fluids. Moreover, Judge Baird had refused to issue an injunction. At least for now, Terri's Law was protecting Terri Schiavo's life.

IS THE TUG OF WAR OVER? Far from it. There will probably be many more days like this one, days in which Terri's life will hang in the balance. Michael remains Terri's legal guardian and he still seeks her death. True to form, Michael immediately ordered the hospital to refuse visitation rights to her parents and siblings. Appeals against Terri's Law are certain, the results unknowable. The bioethics movement is sure to howl in rage and mobilize to undo what Florida has done. But as an emotionally exhausted, yet elated Patricia Anderson told me, "Every day that Terri Schiavo is alive is a good day." For those who believe in the sanctity and equality of human life, October 21, 2003, was a very good day indeed.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. He is the author of "Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder."