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Terri Schiavo feeding tube removed; Congress still working

Updated 11:16 p.m. EST
March 18, 2005

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (BP)–The feeding tube for Terri Schiavo was disconnected March 18 in spite of extraordinary efforts by Congress.

Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer gave the go-ahead for the removal of the severely brain-damaged woman’s feeding tube, dashing the hopes of her supporters that congressional subpoenas would sway the judge. Greer made his decision during a conference call with congressional lawyers, as well as lawyers for both Michael Schiavo — Terri’s husband and legal guardian — and her parents.

Earlier in the day, congressional leaders had issued subpoenas with the goal of keeping the 41-year-old woman’s tube in place. If there is no legislative or judicial intervention to reattach the tube, Schiavo is expected to die from starvation and dehydration in a week to two weeks.

Supporters of Terri Schiavo, though, aren’t giving up. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert released a statement late Friday, saying they would work through the weekend for a legislative solution.

“We’re very disappointed by the Florida court’s decision to allow Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube to be removed,” the statement by Frist and Hastert read. “The House and Senate leadership are committed to reaching an agreement on legislation that provides an opportunity to save Mrs. Schiavo’s life.

“Now that the House and Senate have each passed different legislative remedies, the House and Senate Committees are working urgently together. We will be working through the weekend to resolve the differences and reach an effective solution that can clear our chambers and be signed by the President.”

Their effort comes after earlier action failed to keep the feeding tube in place.

A Senate committee early Friday requested Schiavo herself appear in Washington. The request, from Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, called for Schiavo and her husband to appear March 28 before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. A statement from Frist said the hearing would “review health care policies and practices relevant to the care of non-ambulatory persons such as Mrs. Schiavo.”

Terri Schiavo’s case has captured the nation’s attention in recent weeks, with President Bush even weighing in. For years her parents and her husband have been in a legal struggle over whether she should live or die. While 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.

Congressional leaders had hoped the committee’s request would keep Schiavo alive until they could reach agreement on a bill. The House and Senate both have passed bills, although the bills differ in their approach.

“The Senate and the House remain dedicated to saving Terri Schiavo’s life,” Frist said in a statement March 18. “While discussions over possible legislative remedies continue, the Senate and the House are taking action to keep her alive in the interim.”

In that same statement, Frist said the request would provide legal protections for Terri Schiavo.

“Federal criminal law protects witnesses called before official Congressional committee proceedings from anyone who may obstruct or impede a witness’ attendance or testimony,” he said in the statement. “More specifically, the law protects a witness from anyone who — by threats, force, or by any threatening letter or communication –influences, obstructs, or impedes an inquiry or investigation by Congress. Anyone who violates this law is subject to criminal fines and imprisonment.”

A House committee issued a subpoena early March 18 aimed at Schiavo’s doctors and hospice workers. The House Government Reform Committee issued orders to the doctors and workers not to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube, the Associated Press reported.

The Senate is scheduled to meet again March 21, and the House may as well. The House is not officially recessed for its Easter district work period, but most members left March 17. Legislative action seems to be the only recourse for Schiavo’s supporters. The U.S. Supreme Court late March 17 again declined to get involved in the case.

The head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity told Baptist Press it is “rather extraordinary that a state judge would say that he could find no reason why he should not ignore a congressional subpoena.”

“The depth, breadth and height of Judge Greer’s chutzpah really beggars the imagination,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This is a federal, congressional subpoena. Once one is issued, the recipient enjoys extraordinary federal protections.

“Let’s hope and pray that a federal judge will step in and enforce the congressional subpoenas and protect Terri Schiavo as a federal witness,” he said.

The March 18 subpoena followed a busy day that saw the Florida legislature fail to pass a Schiavo-related bill. The Florida House passed a bill, but the state Senate failed to do so.

Meanwhile, the issue in Washington was finding uncommon agreement from Democrats and Republicans. The U.S. Senate passed a bill March 17; one day after the House passed a bill of its own.

The Senate’s bill targets only Schiavo and would allow a federal court to give a complete review of her case. It passed by voice vote with broad support from both parties. The House version of the bill is much broader.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R.-Fla., is the Senate sponsor.

“By voting for this bill we will simply be allowing a federal judge to give one last review, one last look, in a case that has so many questions,” Martinez said on the floor.

The House stepped into the case late March 16 by passing a bill that would go further than the Senate bill by applying to all people in Schiavo’s condition. But the House version failed March 18 to pass by unanimous consent in the Senate. A Democratic member objected, killing hope for passage by that parliamentary method.

It is unclear whether the House would be able to take up the Senate-backed bill, known as a private relief bill. In a floor speech March 16, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R.-Wis., said Schiavo “would be dead before we could consider” the private relief bill. He said House rules allow consideration of private bills only on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, which, in either case, would be long after her feeding tube had been disconnected.

House leaders continued March 18 to call for the Senate to pass their broader measure. Majority Leader Tom DeLay called the House bill “the right thing to do.”

“This act of barbarism can be, and must be, prevented,” DeLay told reporters. “Terri Schiavo is alive. She is not ‘barely alive.’ She is not ‘being kept alive.’ She is as alive as you or I, and as such we have a moral obligation to protect and defend her from the fate premeditated by the Florida courts. This is not over. We are still working. To friends, family and millions of people praying around the world this Palm Sunday weekend — do not be afraid. Terri Schiavo will not be forsaken.”

Even if the House is able to consider the Senate version, there are problems with the private relief bill, a Republican spokesman said. The Senate version would allow a federal judge to defer to the state court and not review the decision in Schiavo’s case, while the House bill requires the federal court to hear such a case, Judiciary Committee Communications Director Jeff Lungren told Baptist Press.

Since it applies only to Schiavo, the Senate bill would communicate Congress might not protect others in her situation in the future, Lungren said. “We should make sure if we’re going to protect the civil rights of Mrs. Schiavo that we provide equal treatment in the future” for those with similar conditions, he said.

Lungren told BP getting House members scattered around the world back March 21 would be “extraordinarily difficult, bordering on impossible, but this is an extremely important” situation.

Bush weighed in on the matter March 17, releasing a statement indicating he would sign a bill.

“[I]n instances 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. “Those who live at the mercy of others deserve our special care and concern. It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected — and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, voted for the Senate version and said he favors an even broader bill that would protect all persons in Schiavo’s condition. He said he wants 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.”

Sen. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa., also spoke out strongly in favor of the bill.

“Terri Schiavo has done one thing wrong — she didn’t have a living will,” Santorum said. “But the Florida courts gave her a death sentence. They said that her feeding tube and hydration would be removed until she is dead.”

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