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FIRST-PERSON: Starving a woman to death

CLEARWATER, Fla. (BP)–A five-year legal battle to remove the feeding tube of Terri Schindler Schiavo seemingly ended Oct. 15 — with the death of the 39-year-old, brain-damaged woman now imminent. The determined effort of husband Michael Schiavo acting as her legal guardian to starve his wife to death may be realized in a matter of days.

After years of legal wrangling with Terri’s parents, which has resulted in finding that she is in a persistent vegetative state (despite plenty of evidence that should cause any reasonable person to question that finding), a federal appeals court declined to block the removal of Terri’s feeding tube Oct. 10, and a Florida appeals court refused to intervene Oct. 14. Terri is not expected to live more than 10 to 14 days.

The facts of this tragic case are deeply troubling and are cause to question whether justice is being done. In addition to the sacred life of Terri Schiavo, the denial of food and water in this case will bring horrific ramifications for the sanctity of human life in other end-of-life disputes in the future.

In 1990 at the age of 26, Terri suffered a collapse in her St. Petersburg, Fla., home that caused oxygen deprivation and severe brain damage. Her husband initially cared for her and won a medical malpractice lawsuit in 1992 in which he testified: “I believe in the vows I took with my wife, through sickness, in health, for richer or poor. I married my wife because I love her and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I’m going to do that.”

By 1998, however, he petitioned the courts to have her feeding tube removed, claiming that Terri had previously told him she would never want to be kept alive by life support. Two weeks before the trial in 2000, Schiavo introduced two additional witnesses — his brother and sister-in-law — to corroborate Terri’s end-of-life wishes.

Still, Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler of Gulf Port, Fla., note there is no documented evidence concerning Terri’s actual wishes on matters pertaining to end-of-life decisions.

In addition to the highly questionable evidence concerning Terri’s wishes, the finding that she suffers from a persistent vegetative state is quite dubious. It’s clear from videos of persons interacting with Terri that she is aware of her surroundings and that she is not in “a permanent and irreversible state of unconsciousness in which there is an absence of voluntary or cognitive behavior and an inability to interact purposefully with one’s environment,” as the Florida statutes define a persistent vegetative state.

The video evidence is available, along with further information about Terri’s case, at the family’s website: www.terrisfight.org. The website notes: “Terri is not in a coma. Like you and I, Terri has separate periods of sleep and wakefulness. Like you and I, she is able to breathe normally, maintain a normal heartbeat and has involuntary functions other than the residual effects associated with a brain-damaged patient. Terri is not using a respirator or any other machine to stay alive.”

Further, renowned neurosurgeon William Hammesfahr has offered to treat Terri and to give her the rehabilitation she needs to recover because he believes — along with at least 10 other physicians the family has found — that Terri’s condition could improve with therapy.

The Schindlers and other observers have questioned Michael Schiavo’s decisions and motives in this case. Wesley Smith, an attorney who specializes in bioethics, told WorldNetDaily, an online news service that has doggedly covered the Schiavo story, “It’s beyond the pale to me that a man who wants to remarry — and has one child with his fiancee and is expecting another — is allowed to have any say in this whatsoever when there’s such an obvious conflict of interest. It gives whole new meaning to [the saying] ’til death do us part,’ doesn’t it?”

Smith added: “Because he has a stake in her death — he wishes to remarry and at the same time would inherit whatever is left of her medical trust fund … — he should not be the one making these decisions.”

Responding to more than 27,000 e-mails requesting his intervention, Gov. Jeb Bush sent a letter to Florida Circuit Judge George W. Greer requesting that a new guardian be appointed to review the case before the feeding tube is removed. Greer refused.

“I urge you to err on the side of conservative judgment to ensure that all facts can be uncovered and considered before her life is terminated,” Bush wrote.

Later, Bush filed an amicus brief in a federal lawsuit filed by Terri’s parents in U.S. District Court in Tampa urging a judge to require feeding therapy to be administered before the feeding tube was removed. Judge Richard Lazzara denied the request Oct. 10.

Although Bush promised to continue to investigate every possible means of legal intervention when he met with the Schindlers Oct. 15, Terri’s fate now seems certain.

The fact that Schiavo’s attorney, George Felos, is a noted euthanasia advocate, demonstrates the extraordinary implications of Terri’s case. A significant advancement has been achieved for the “right-to-die” lobby.

And, tragically, for her family and friends, the life of Terri Schindler Schiavo will be taken. The cause: starvation.
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of Florida Baptist Witness, which is available on the Internet at www.floridabaptistwitness.com. This is adapted and updated from an editorial that appeared in the Sept. 4 edition of the Witness.

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  • James A. Smith Sr.