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Ethical? Attorney says Michael Schiavo not abandoning vows

CLEARWATER, Fla. (BP)–Michael Schiavo simply won’t give up on trying to remove his 41-year-old disabled wife’s feeding tube, his attorney said after one of the recent court hearings in the case that continues to make national headlines.

George Felos, the “right-to-die” attorney representing Michael Schiavo, told the Florida Baptist Witness that his client “deeply loves Terri” and cares about her despite cohabitating openly with his fiancé, Jodi Centonze, since 1995. The couple now have two children together.

“He simply is not gong to walk away from that promise he made to [Terri] when she said, ‘Honey, don’t keep me alive like that,’” said Felos, describing statements made to a guardianship judge after winning a $1.3 million malpractice settlement for his wife’s care.

Asked about the promise he made when Michael and Terri exchanged wedding vows in 1986, Felos said it is “subjective opinion” and “cruel-hearted” to think Schiavo walked away from his wedding vows.

“I think it’s hard-hearted to say to somebody whose spouse has Alzheimer’s, or whose spouse has had some catastrophic accident, that they are consigned to a life of loneliness and then can’t form other relationships,” Felos said. “That’s a moral judgment and, you know, I think people have different views on it.”

Christian ethicist C. Ben Mitchell, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago, told the Witness that Felos’ assertions miss the mark.

“[To describe] a romantic affair that results in two children while one is married to another person [as] ‘forming other relationships’ is like calling premeditated murder ‘morally problematic,’” Mitchell said.

“The vow to love another person in the covenant of marriage neither includes violating the covenant through adultery nor withdrawing the basic necessities of life — like food and water — when maintaining them might allow the spouse to recover,” Mitchell continued. “In this case, I have to trust the integrity and purity of Terri’s parents’ inclinations above Mr. Shiavo’s.”

With Schiavo having prevailed in numerous court proceedings, a Florida judge has scheduled the removal of Terri’s feeding tube for March 18 at 1 p.m. Eastern, pending any appellate decisions.

Documents show Michael and Terri’s marriage to have been unique in that, as a practicing Catholic, she received a special dispensation to marry Michael, who is not Catholic, in a marriage Mass where they exchanged vows.

In 1990, Terri became brain-damaged when her heart stopped beating in the family home and her brain was deprived of oxygen. For nearly a decade her family — including her parents and brother, Bobby, and sister, Suzanne —- has been at odds with Michael over whether Terri can improve. According to her parents and others close to the case, she has been kept mostly isolated — and all attempts to rehabilitate were ordered stopped by Michael.

Terri’s adherence to her faith remains a matter before the courts. Last year, an attorney for her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, asked Judge George W. Greer to reconsider his February 2000 order authorizing the removal of her feeding tube in light of a statement made by the pope against removing food and hydration in cases similar to Terri’s.

And though Terri attended girls-only private Catholic schools through high school, as well as regularly attending Mass with her parents before her collapse, the court has so far failed to indicate it will recognize what potentially could be moral decisions consistent with the views of her faith, rather than those of her husband.

Tom Brodersen, husband of Pat Anderson, a former attorney for the Schindler family, told the Florida Baptist Witness he believes the result of Michael’s pursuit of Terri’s death and his encasement of her in a hospice where people are sent to die has left her lonely and without stimulation.

“She married the man for love and she lay there all alone while Michael took his love down the street and lavished it on another woman,” Brodersen said. “Somebody younger who wasn’t disabled.”

Brodersen, who has degrees in speech pathology and law, was on the short visitor’s list for a period of time after his wife took the case in 2001. After introducing himself to Terri by leading a trio with her parents, singing, “Those Were the Days,” Brodersen said the normally shy Terri appeared to accept him as one of the family and did not ignore him as she does people she is not familiar with.

“I was struck by how lonely Terri is,” Brodersen said. “She is shockingly lonesome.”

Brodersen said he was not allowed to continue to visit with Terri after a mix-up in visitation occurred over two years ago, but recalled putting to use his knowledge of speech training and broadcasting during his visits — even getting her to clearly articulate a pattern of “yes and no” communication.

“I had started out kind of trying to replicate some of the things done before,” Brodersen recounted, like trying to get Terri, who is said to be functionally blind, to move her eyes in different ways. That didn’t seem to be one of Terri’s strengths, however.

“But she had really good vocal control,” Brodersen said.

It didn’t take him long to help Terri develop a moan that would be long and drawn out and a moan that would start and stop — one long moan for “yes” and two for “no.”

“I started out trying to have her hold a moan like she would hold it when singing,” Brodersen said. “You have a beautiful voice, I told her, to encourage rather than discourage. With a little prompting she would hold the note.”

Brodersen said he was impressed, though the court had dismissed earlier videos and reports of Terri’s articulation as pure reflex.

Some doctors have said Terri is in a “persistent vegetative state” and has no awareness of her surroundings. Brodersen disagreed. He said Terri learned quickly and responded to two questions he posed to her on the last day he visited. He asked Terri if she was 10 feet tall and if the color of her skin was purple. For the first answer, he said she moaned twice.

“I was delighted because obviously she understood the instructions and did her best to follow them and had the cognition to form a correct response to that question,” Brodersen said. “So it was a context appropriate answer.”

In a somewhat repetitive sense, Brodersen said he again explained the process to her, with both her mother and father in the room.

“I asked Terri, ‘Are you purple?’ and she furrowed her brow like she was concentrating really hard and spontaneously she whispered the word, ‘no.’”

Later that same day, Brodersen said Terri again said “no” when she was asked if she was thirsty and he came to the conclusion that working on a system of repetitive moans was probably unnecessary and so he begin to work on a helping her to say “yeah” for “yes” since she had already said no.

Other instances when Terri appeared to recognize music and even to be inspired by a Gregorian chant convinced Brodersen that Terri could not be considered unfeeling or, simply put, a “vegetable,” he said.

“I guarantee you unless she was drugged or under the weather, if her dad called me and held the phone to her ear, Terri would give that telephone her fullest attention and laugh,” Brodersen said. “Terri Schiavo is a friend of mine and it really is that simple.”

Outside the Woodside Hospice where Terri Schiavo is confined, Dominique, who declined to give her last name, said on Feb. 23 that America is in danger of becoming like her native Poland, where she said euthanasia has gained a strong following.

Declaring that “euthanasia is bad,” the disabled woman balanced a sign on her electric wheelchair while reading her Bible.

“It’s terrible. This should not happen,” she said in accented English. “[Terri’s] a human being and she’s created by God and only God can take her when it is right.”

Speaking of the biblical teaching about how the poor, the widows and the downtrodden are to be taken care of, Dominique said God will show mercy in the same way mercy is extended to others.

“God knows when it is time for Terri to come home.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com. For related stories, click on “Terri Schiavo: A Life at Stake.”

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  • Joni B. Hannigan