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House passes bill that could save Schiavo’s life, Bush signs it

WASHINGTON (BP)–In an extraordinary and historical action the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation in the early morning hours March 21 that could save Terri Schiavo’s life, and President Bush signed it into law. It passed at 12:42 a.m. EST time by a vote of 203-58.

The bill provides Schiavo’s parents the opportunity to appeal the case to a federal court, which would give a complete review of the facts. In essence, the judge would be starting over, with new witnesses and new evidence allowed. The narrowly tailored bill applies only to Schiavo’s case.

Bush signed the bill less than an hour after it passed the House.

Supporters of the bill hope that a federal judge will order the re-insertion of Schiavo’s feeding tube, which was removed March 18. A federal judge was scheduled to hear the case at 3 p.m. EST Monday.

The bill passed the Senate on a voice vote March 20. If the feeding tube is not put back in place she will die of starvation and dehydration within a week or so.

“If prisoners on death row are guaranteed federal review of their cases, Terri Schiavo deserves at least as much consideration,” Rep. Joseph Pitts, R.-Pa., said on the floor.

The bill had broad bi-partisan support in the House, with 156 Republicans and 47 Democrats voting for it. Voting against it were five Republicans and 53 Democrats. Because it was an expedited bill it required passage of two-thirds of the members present. Many House members had left town for the Easter recess and were not there. Not voting were 71 Republicans, 102 Democrats and the House’s one independent.

Bush flew from Crawford, Texas, to Washington to sign the bill.

“In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life,” Bush said in a statement. “This presumption is especially critical for those like Terri Schiavo who live at the mercy of others. I appreciate the bipartisan action by the Members of Congress to pass this bill. I will continue to stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans, including those with disabilities.”

Schiavo’s case has captured the nation’s attention in recent weeks. For years her parents and her husband have been in a legal struggle over whether she should live or die. While her husband, Michael Schiavo, says she would not want to live in her present state, no written request exists. Meanwhile, he has lived with his girlfriend, by whom he has fathered two children. Her parents say she has the capacity to swallow and could learn to eat food orally. She is 41.

Lawyers for Michael Schiavo likely will argue in court that the bill is unconstitutional.

Bobby Schindler Jr., Terri Schiavo’s younger brother, watched the House debate live in the gallery.

“I’m at a loss for words,” he told the Florida Baptist Witness. “I don’t even know how to express how much gratitude I have for all of these wonderful Congressmen…. It’s almost surreal. After the Senate passed it late this afternoon and we had to get over that one hurdle in the House, we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R.-Wis., said during floor debate that “every life has purpose.”

“The measure of a nation’s commitment to the sanctity of life is reflected in its laws, and to the extent those laws honor and defend its most vulnerable citizens,” Sensenbrenner said. “When a person’s intentions regarding whether to receive life-saving treatment are unclear, the responsibility of a compassionate nation is to affirm that person’s right to life.”

Opponents of the bill argued the matter should be left to the family. Rep. Robert Wexler, D.-Fla., said Congress should make sure that “her will be respected and her will be carried out.” He also urged Congress to respect Florida’s “judicial independence.” Another Floridian, Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, said, “We should not politicize this very personal family matter.”

While some doctors have said Terri Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, others have said she is not.

“No less than 14 independent medical professionals — including six neurologists — have said she is not in a persistent vegetative state,” Rep. Christopher Smith, R.-N.J., said.

Sensenbrenner noted that Schiavo requires only a feeding tube, which he said is “not life support.”

“That’s simply requiring someone to have the nutrition and hydration they need as a living human being,” he said. “… To starve someone to death or to have them die of dehydration slowly is one of the most cruel and inhumane ways to die.”

Sensenbrenner also argued that animals in Florida have more protection than does Schiavo. In Florida, he said, a person can go to jail and be filed $5,000 if an animal is not fed.

“In Florida, an animal has a higher right than this woman, and that’s a wrong priority, and this bill attempts to correct it,” he said.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R.-Texas, put it more bluntly.

“A young woman in Florida is being dehydrated and starved to death,” DeLay said. “… If we do not act, she will die of thirst.”

Schindler said Sen. Mel Martinez, R.-Fla., and Rep. David Weldon, R.-Fla., were helpful in listening to his concerns and made him feel like “a part of the family.”

“Our family has been trying so hard to get the story out about Terri and her condition and finally it looked like people here in Washington wanted to know — and they listened and they were concerned and troubled and wanted to do something to help and obviously they did.

“I think they truly believe that if convicted killers are able to have a final review in federal court that someone innocent like Terri certainly deserves the same. It was courageous what they did and I’m just forever eternally grateful for everything.”

Some House opponents criticized the bill for giving special treatment to the Schiavo case. The House had passed a bill days earlier that would apply to all cases similar to Schiavo’s, although it failed to gain enough support in the Senate. Congress, though, eventually may move to pass such a bill. During floor debate March 17 Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, said he wanted the Senate “to fashion some kind of legislation that will give people of disabilities the ability to take one last look at their case before the plug is pulled.”
With reporting by Joni B. Hannigan of the Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • Michael Foust