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Last chance? Terri Schiavo case to be appealed to Supreme Court once again

LAKELAND, Fla. (BP)–For the second time in less than a year, the U.S. Supreme Court will be asked to consider an appeal related to Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose plight has pitted pro-life supporters against euthanasia advocates in a case drawing worldwide attention.

On Feb. 4 Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals dismissed without an opinion an appeal that would have considered the religious liberty rights of Schiavo.

The ruling leaves Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri’s parents, without many options in Florida, but does clear the way for their attorneys to take the issue of a disabled person’s religious liberty rights all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawsuit centers on the Pope’s declaration last year that removal of a feeding tube is not compatible with Roman Catholic pro-life teachings. Schiavo is Catholic.

“We have been all along planning to do that,” Barbara Weller, an attorney with the Gibbs Law Firm which represents the Schindlers, told the Florida Baptist Witness Feb. 9.

Weller said the Schindlers are doing “amazingly well” in light of the district court’s ruling but saddened to learn their daughter’s religious beliefs apparently are not taken seriously.

“We’re just very disappointed that [the court] chose not to deal with such an important issue of the free exercise of religion, which is one of the most important foundations of our American government,” Weller said.

She said her firm will continue to press for Terri’s religious and due process rights, despite the refusal in January by the nation’s high court to hear an appeal on whether “Terri’s Law,” passed by the Florida legislature in 2003, was unconstitutional, as the Florida Supreme Court had ruled.

The Second District Court’s decision, when it is finalized procedurally Feb. 22, will most likely end a current stay issued by Pinellas County Circuit Judge George Greer that is keeping Schiavo alive. The stay halts his 2000 ruling that said healthcare workers — at the request of Terri’s husband and guardian, Michael Schiavo — could discontinue feeding Terri. Once her feeding tubes are removed, she will die by starvation and dehydration — most likely within 7-10 days.

Weller said she believes Michael Schiavo’s attorney, George Felos, is incorrect in statements he has made to the press that healthcare workers will be able to begin the starvation process again Feb. 22.

“We still have other avenues of appeal,” Weller said, explaining that since several courts are involved, her firm cannot request a stay in anticipation of another stay’s expiration.

Greer is expected to rule Feb. 11 on whether another pending motion can proceed. It deals with whether Terri Schiavo’s constitutional right to due process was violated when she was not assigned an independent attorney to represent her throughout the past six years.

Schiavo, an otherwise healthy 41-year-old woman, was found unconscious in her home in 1990, having suffered brain damage after her heart stopped. Some doctors have ruled she is in a Persistent Vegetative State. Others agree with her parents who say that with rehabilitation she might learn to swallow and be able to improve. Nutrition and hydration has twice been discontinued in her case and restored only after court or legislative intervention.

A few years after her collapse Michael Schiavo won more than a million dollars in a malpractice suit against doctors, after which he ended communication with her parents and placed a “do not resuscitate order” with healthcare workers. He told the court Terri would not wish to continue to live in her present condition and barred efforts to rehabilitate his wife. However, no written request from Terri Schiavo exists.

Terri’s parents have long argued that Michael Schiavo’s continued guardianship of their daughter presents a conflict of interest. He has lived with his long-time girlfriend, with whom he has had two children, for at least nine years.

After the Second District Court’s latest decision, Mary Schindler told the Witness she wasn’t surprised, but was disappointed, considering the Pope’s statements last year. Schindler and her family, including Terri, are devout Catholics who have said they consider the Pope’s insight critical to Terri’s case.

“I take each day at a time and think about it all of the time,” Schindler said of the courts’ various rulings and the possibility a court will instruct workers to discontinue feeding Terri. “I keep hoping this time it’s not going to happen. So many people are aware that she is just a healthy brain-damaged person. I pray something can be done.”

Recounting a visit with Terri Feb. 7, Schindler said she appears to be doing well, though maybe a bit on the “sleepy side” due to medications she believes Terri is being given for twitching, which the family had observed several weeks ago. According to the Schindlers and their attorneys, Michael Schiavo previously has ordered healthcare workers not to discuss Terri’s medical condition with them.

“She laughed and she started trying to vocalize again,” Schindler said of her daughter during the visit to the hospice where she has lived for several years.

“I just keep telling her the same thing, ‘Just hang in there. You’ve been so strong so far. I know you can hold on a little bit longer,'” Schindler said.

Both Schindler and Weller said they are encouraged by a recent article in The New York Times describing a breakthrough in testing brain-damaged individuals. The article said those who have suffered brain damage may be able to “hear and register” their surrounding but be unable to respond.

“I thought they were talking about my daughter,” Schindler said animatedly. “I absolutely think she should definitely have this test. Absolutely. I would love to see her have that test and see what she does when she hears our voices.”

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  • Joni B. Hannigan