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‘Sad day for America’: Schiavo dies in Fla. hospice, 2 weeks after feeding tube pulled

Updated 12:52 Eastern

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (BP)–Terri Schiavo, the 41-year-old disabled woman at the center of a nationwide life-and-death debate, died Thursday morning in her Florida hospice — nearly two weeks after her feeding tube was pulled.

Her case captured the nation’s attention in recent weeks, as Congress and President Bush intervened in an attempt to save her life. But in the end, Schiavo’s parents failed to convince federal courts to re-insert her feeding tube. It was pulled March 18 following a court-order.

Schiavo’s death by starvation and dehydration brought together both sides of the ideological spectrum. Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican and one of the nation’s foremost pro-lifers, visited with her parents, as did civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, a former Democratic presidential candidate who has clashed with religious conservatives on multiple issues.

The case even brought together Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, and Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, both of whom supported a bill that sought to keep her alive.

The debate over Schiavo’s death likely will not end soon. Congress, which is still on its Easter recess, is expected to debate what can be done to assist families in similar situations. The bill might cover all cases where the patient’s end-of-life wishes are in dispute.

President Bush said Thursday morning he and First Lady Laura Bush extend their condolences to Schiavo’s family.

“I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life, where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected — especially those who live at the mercy of others,” Bush said. “The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life.”

Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Schiavo’s parents showed “what it means to be loving, compassionate parents.”

“[A]merica should be hanging its head in shame because of its complicity in the horrible death of Terri Schiavo, a woman whose body committed no crime,” Welch told Baptist Press. “No matter what the laws of our land may say concerning euthanasia, and no matter that America slouches toward a culture of selfishness even in death, God is the ultimate authority over life and death.”

Schiavo suffered brain damage in 1990 when she collapsed in her home. For years, her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, battled her parents in the courts over whether she would have wanted to live. While Michael Schiavo asserted that she would have wanted to die, no written request existed. Her parents wanted to take care of Schiavo, and argued that Michael Schiavo was not fit to be her guardian since he lived with his girlfriend and had fathered two children by her. Doctors were divided over whether Schiavo was in a Persistent Vegetative State, although the Florida court-appointed doctor said she was.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called Schiavo’s passing a “sad day for America.”

“It’s a particularly sad day for anyone who is physically or mentally handicapped, or seriously and debilitatingly ill, and those who love them,” Land said. “The judiciary at the state and federal level condemned Terri Schiavo to death by dehydration and malnutrition on the hearsay evidence of a husband who is cohabiting with another woman whom he introduces as his fiancé and with whom he has produced two children.

“This was done in spite of the heart-wrenching pleas of Terri’s parents, who have loved and nurtured her throughout her life and have repeatedly volunteered to take over responsibility for her care. It’s really hard for millions of American parents to accept the fact that the judicial system in the United States of America has told a mom and a dad they cannot feed their child.”

Ken Connor, one of the legal advisers to the Schindler family, said the case of Terri Schiavo revealed much about America. Connor, chairman of the Center for a Just Society, also represented Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the Schiavo matter.

“Our society abandoned Terri Schiavo and I believe that we will all suffer as a consequence,” he told BP. “As the poet John Donne said, ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’ We are all diminished by Terri’s death and all bear responsibility for what has happened to her.

“The character of any culture is judged by the way we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us. It’s not judged by how we treat kings, princes and presidents or the rich and powerful; it’s easy to honor those. Our Lord personally identified Himself with the weak and the downtrodden. That’s why He said, ‘Inasmuch as you’ve done it to the least of these my brethren, you’ve done it unto Me.’”

Florida Gov. Bush said Schiavo’s life was a “tragic journey” but that she is now “at rest.”

“Many across our state and around the world are deeply grieved by the way Terri died,” Bush said in a statement. “I feel that grief very sharply as well. I remain convinced, however, that Terri’s death is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society. For that, we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us.

“I still firmly believe that human life is a gift and a mystery, and that its mystery is most evident at its beginning and ending. May all of us whose hearts were moved during the life of Terri Schiavo grow in wisdom at its ending.”

Welch said that he and “millions of other Southern Baptists care deeply” for the Schindler family and are praying for them.

Land said he hopes Schiavo’s death will serve as a turning point in the pro-life battle nationwide.

“I pray that this terrible tragedy will be a wakeup call for the American people to stand up and insist on the reassertion of the sanctity-of-life ethic upon which this nation was based in the Declaration of Independence, which holds that all human beings have the inalienable right to life because they are human beings — born, unborn, healthy, unhealthy, young, old, handicapped or incurably ill,” he said. “When we reject the sanctity ethic for the so-called quality-of-life ethic, in which we begin to assert some human beings have what the Nazis called ‘lives unworthy of life,’ we have taken a giant step down a steep and slippery slope to a dark and dangerous place for anyone who is not born, wanted, young, powerful, productive and healthy.

“I urge everyone to pray for Terri’s family, particularly her heart-broken parents, and to pray that God will send a spiritual awakening to America, which is the only real antidote to the toxic poison of the culture of death.”

Burke Balch, director of the National Right to Life Committee’s Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics, said in a statement, “We are deeply saddened by Terri’s death and extend our heartfelt sympathy to the Schindler family. Terri Schiavo’s death is a gross injustice and it marks a sad day in our history when our society allows Terri and others like her who have severe disabilities to be discarded in such a cruel and inhumane manner.

“We must redouble our efforts to protect those with disabilities. We will continue working to ensure that they are not dismissed by some ‘quality of life’ standard which dictates that some lives are less worthy than others.”

Balch said National Right to Life is promoting a pro-life living will called the “Will to Live” for those who wish to make sure they are not put to death by starvation and dehydration. “It is important to recognize that many standard living will forms are written to reject food and fluids, not to insist on them and we encourage people to consider signing a pro-life living will,” Balch said.

The Will to Live forms, along with instructions on how to complete them, are available for each state at www.nrlc.org.
With reporting by Art Toalston & Tom Strode.

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  • Michael Foust