Terri Schiavo's tragic story ends, but debate continues
Published: Friday, April 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 1, 2005 at 5:46 a.m.
PINELLAS PARK - The long, sorrowful struggle over Terri Schiavo's life ended Thursday morning when she died in her hospice bed almost two weeks after the removal of her feeding tube, her parents and siblings absent, the husband they reviled at her side.
A collection of quotes on Terri Schiavo's death
By The Associated Press
"Her life will continue. Right now, she's in heaven. She will live forever." _ the Rev. Thaddeus Malanowski, the Roman Catholic priest who gave Schiavo last rites and Easter communion.
"Every Florida and federal judge who failed to act to spare this precious woman from the torment she was forced to endure is guilty not only of judicial malfeasance _ but of the cold-blooded, cold-hearted extermination of an innocent human life." _ James Dobson of Focus on the Family, which pushed to have Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted.
"I'm just glad it's over. I hope the family can heal. I hope they can get together and help her find peace." _ Raymond Simmons of Tampa, one of the few people outside Schiavo's hospice who supported the decision to remove the feeding tube.
"It is with great sadness that it's been reported to us that Terri Schiavo has passed away." _ Paul O'Donnell, a monk who acted as a spokesman for the woman's parents, who battled to have her feeding tube restored.
"Mr. Schiavo's overriding concern here was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity. This death was not for the siblings, and not for the spouse and not for the parents. This was for Terri." _ George Felos, the attorney for Schiavo's husband, Michael, who fought to have the feeding tube removed.
"She can finally be at peace after 15 years." _ her sister-in-law Karen Schiavo.
"Today, millions of Americans are saddened by the death of Terri Schiavo. Laura and I extend our condolences to Terri Schiavo's families. I appreciate the example of grace and dignity they have displayed at a difficult time. I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life." _ President Bush.
"After an extraordinarily difficult and tragic journey, Terri Schiavo is at rest. 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." _ Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Their faith in God remains consistent and strong. They are absolutely convinced that God loves Terri more than they do." _ attorney David Gibbs III, describing her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler.
"The circumstances of the death of Ms. Terri Schiavo have rightly disturbed consciences. An existence was interrupted. A death was arbitrarily hastened because nourishing a person can never be considered employing exceptional means." _ Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
"This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change. The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today. Today we grieve, we pray, and we hope to God this fate never befalls another." _ House Republican Leader Tom DeLay.
"She was starved and dehydrated to death ... Her sickness has triggered a huge national health debate in our country." _ The Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"This is not only a death, with all the sadness that brings, but this is a killing, and for that we not only grieve that Terri has passed but we grieve that our nation has allowed such an atrocity as this and we pray that it will never happen again." the Rev. Frank Pavone, a Roman Catholic priest and national director of Priests for Life.
The enmity that defined the case over seven years persisted even in the final minutes before Schiavo's death, as her brother, Bobby Schindler, sought to stay at her bedside but her husband, Michael, told him to leave.
Her death, just after 9 a.m., brought a swell of emotion from the encampment outside the hospice, the state Capitol, the White House, and even the Vatican.
In brief statements, Schindler and his sister, Suzanne Vitadamo, hinted at their anger toward Michael Schiavo but mostly thanked supporters who had rallied around them for years.
"After these recent years of neglect at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and care for her," Vitadamo said of her sister, who was 41, "she is finally at peace with God for eternity."
Schiavo stayed out of sight but his chief lawyer, George Felos, said he had cradled his wife as her breathing ceased and her limbs grew cold, while his older brother, his lawyers and some of the hospice workers who tended to Schiavo for years looked on.
"Mr. Schiavo's overriding concern here was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity," Felos said in an afternoon news conference. "This death was not for the siblings, and not for the spouse and not for the parents. This was for Terri."
In recent weeks, the polarizing fight over Schiavo produced a wrenching national conversation about the rights of incapacitated people and when their lives should end if they left no specific instructions.
It drew religious conservatives and abortion opponents who adopted the Schindlers' cause, saying no life should end prematurely. And just as the case of Karen Ann Quinlan prompted a debate nearly 30 years ago about the "right to die," the Schiavo case seemed to focus as much on the "right to live."
In Washington, where Schiavo's plight prompted an extraordinary effort by Congress to intervene to save her, President Bush expressed sympathy "to Terri Schiavo's families" and called on the nation to "build a culture of life, where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected."
The Vatican issued a statement calling Schiavo's death a "violation of the sacred nature of life" that had "shocked consciences." Pope John Paul II, whose own health is failing, said last year that providing food and water, even by artificial means, was "moral and obligatory."
Within hours of her death, Schiavo's body was transported to the Pinellas County medical examiner's office, where an autopsy will be performed to determine her cause of death, as required by state law. An official from that office said the autopsy would be completed within 24 hours and the body released to Michael Schiavo, but a report on its conclusions might not be finished for several weeks.
Earlier this week, Felos said that his client wanted the autopsy so he could lay to rest long-standing rumors that he had abused his wife, perhaps even on the night of her collapse. Felos also said his client believed it was "important to have the public know the full and massive extent of the damage to Ms. Schiavo's brain" to counteract accusations that she was cognizant, communicative, and being starved to death against her will.
Dr. Barbara Crain, director of the autopsy service at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said in an interview that an autopsy alone would not likely determine a patient's mental condition in life with absolute certainty. But by examining sections of nerve cells and connective tissue under a microscope, she said, pathologists can confirm a vegetative state.
Autopsy studies of people who die in a persistent vegetative state show extensive cell death throughout the cerebral cortex, the seat of consciousness, and this damage is almost always obvious at post-mortem, she said.
Michael Schiavo, 41, plans to cremate his wife and bury her remains in his family plot outside Philadelphia, where he and his wife grew up. Felos did not discuss specific burial plans, but friends of the Schindlers said they were planning a separate funeral service for Schiavo in Florida. The Schindlers, who are Roman Catholic, had asked that their daughter be buried here in accordance with their religious beliefs. Felos described in detail Terri Schiavo's final night and morning, from her increasingly labored breathing to the soft music playing in her room to the vigil her husband kept beside her bed until dawn. Around 7 a.m., Felos said, Michael Schiavo left the room so that his wife's siblings could visit with a priest, the Rev. Frank Pavone, who runs a national group called Priests for Life.
Felos said that when hospice workers asked the siblings to leave around 8:45 a.m. so they could assess Schiavo's condition, Bobby Schindler said he wanted to stay and got into a dispute with a police officer stationed outside the room.
Michael Schiavo made a "split-second decision" not to let Schindler stay, Felos said, adding that he "was not going to permit an explosive situation" as his wife took her last breaths.
When Terri Schiavo died, her brother and sister were across the street in a thrift shop that served as the family's base in recent weeks. Her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, arrived about half an hour later and went in to see her one last time, looking dazed.
Outside Woodside Hospice after the death was announced, Pavone said of Michael Schiavo, "His heartless cruelty continues until this very last moment."
Asked whether the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo might reconcile now that the object of their dispute is gone, Felos did not offer much hope.
"The level of acrimony hurled at Mr. Schiavo by the Schindlers - I mean, he's been called a murderer, a wife abuser," he said. "That is not conduct and behavior that lead to reconciliation."
But the Schindlers, some of whose supporters have leveled death threats against Michael Schiavo, called for peace after his wife's death.
"Our family abhors any violence or any threats of violence," Vitadamo said. "We would ask that all of those who support our family be completely kind in their words and deeds toward others."
Terri Schiavo's husband and parents, once close, have battled over her fate since 1998, when Michael Schiavo asked a state court's permission to remove life support. Terri Schiavo suffered extensive brain damage when her heart stopped beating one night in 1990, due to a potassium deficiency that may have been caused by bulimia.
She could breathe on her own and had periods of wakefulness, but Judge George Greer of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, who presided over the case, accepted the testimony of doctors who said she was in a "persistent vegetative state" and incapable of thought or emotion.
More important, Greer found credible Michael Schiavo's testimony that his wife, who left no written directive, had said on several occasions that she would not want life-prolonging measures to be used for her. The Schindlers always maintained that their daughter was responsive and capable of recovery, and tried to wrest her guardianship away from their son in-law.
The rift between the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo, which started over a $1-million malpractice settlement he won on his wife's behalf in 1993, deepened after he had two children with Jodi Centonze, his live-in girlfriend since the mid-1990s. Their supporters called him an adulterer who had no business retaining guardianship of Terri Schiavo.
Although the case started quietly as a family dispute, Greer's rulings in favor of Michael Schiavo eventually drew the attention of conservative political leaders here and in Washington. The case stirred to action Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature, who succeeded in getting Terri Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted six days after its removal in 2003 with a law that was later found unconstitutional. It also stirred Congress and President Bush, who enacted a measure days after her feeding tube was removed for the final time on March 18 allowing the Schindlers to take their case against Michael Schiavo to the federal courts.
Its backers hoped the newest law would lead a federal court to quickly order Terri Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted, at least giving her parents more time to press their case.
But a federal judge in Tampa promptly rejected the Schindlers' argument that their daughter's due process rights had been violated, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld his decision. In an opinion this week, Judge Stanley F. Birch Jr. of the circuit court admonished President Bush and Congress for acting "in a manner demonstrably at odds with our founding fathers' blueprint for the governance of a free people."
Gov. Bush, who had tried to intervene in the matter as recently as last week, said after learning of Terri Schiavo's death that "this issue transcends politics and policies." He also called her fraught case "the toughest issue" in his tenure.
"Her experience will heighten awareness of the importance of families dealing with end-of-life issues, and that is an incredible legacy," he said. "The politics takes care of itself."
Theresa Marie Schindler Schiavo was born on Dec. 3, 1963, and grew up in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. She was the oldest child, a shy, sensitive girl who loved animals, John Denver and "Starsky and Hutch." She was overweight through childhood but lost more than 50 pounds during her senior year of high school.
Michael Schiavo, whom she met in her second semester at Bucks County Community College, was her first and only boyfriend. They got engaged after five months of dating and married in 1984 in a big Roman Catholic wedding. Soon they moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., where he worked as a restaurant manager and she as an insurance company clerk.
The Schindlers shortly followed, and Terri Schiavo maintained her close relationship with her family while her husband worked nights. She also grew even thinner, and had no luck getting pregnant even after consulting a fertility specialist. She weighed no more than 120 pounds on Feb. 26, 1990, the day her ordinary life changed irrevocably.
According to Michael Schiavo, he heard a thud around 4 a.m. and rose from bed to find his wife collapsed on the floor. By the time paramedics arrived and resuscitated her, oxygen depletion had caused the brain damage that would confine her to beds and chairs, with diapers, tubes, and contracted limbs, for the rest of her life.
After she died, a stuffed tabby cat tucked in the crook of her arm, hospice workers bathed her body, then at least 30 gathered around as it lay on the medical examiner's gurney. They said prayers, according to Felos, and then said goodbye.
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