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Giving up the fight to get on with life

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 3, 2002


Michael Schiavo could make everything so easy.

All he has to do is divorce his wife and then walk away from the fight.

But he won't, says his lawyer. For if Michael Schiavo quits now, his wife's parents will have control of her. They will take every measure they can to keep their daughter Terri alive.

And that, according to Michael Schiavo, is the opposite of what Terri wanted.

So the fight continues over whether she lives or dies. She has been in a vegetative state since 1990. Meantime her husband continues this all but hand-to-hand combat with his wife's parents while in his private life, he has clearly moved on. He has a girlfriend. They have a baby.

Last week, Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer sided with three doctors who said Terri Schiavo would never recover. The judge ordered her feeding tube removed on Jan. 3.

This is the second such order by Greer, and this one, like the last one, will produce an almost automatic appeal. The tube will not be pulled. The interminable legal fight will continue.

It has taken on the peculiar overtones of a death penalty appeals case.

The lawyers hop from court to court. The motions are endless, picayune and sometimes off the wall. The process goes on for what seems like perpetuity.

And the original cause of action is buried in the paperwork. What started out as a dispute over Terri Schiavo's wishes long ago became a personal feud between her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, and Schiavo, whom the Schindlers have all but demonized.

Nobody knows why Terri Schiavo, a young married woman, suffered a heart attack in 1990. One theory is that she had a potassium deficiency brought on by an eating disorder. The heart attack cut off oxygen to her brain. She has been in a vegetative state since.

It was said for a long time that Michael Schiavo was in the fight because of the money, about $700,000 from a malpractice settlement. But those who despise him can say that no longer. The money has been chewed up by his legal bills.

I suggest he walk away not because I think he's wrong. He's right. He has the right as his wife's legal guardian to speak for her. He was in the best position to know her wishes.

But it doesn't matter if Michael Schiavo is right. The Schindlers will never back down. They now have the support of the hysterical right-to-life movement. A California group, the Life Legal Defense Foundation, is paying some of their legal expenses.

This fight could go on another decade. But in every fight, there comes a point when you have to ask what it's all worth. The Schindlers will never do this kind of weighing and measuring. It's up to her husband, paradoxical though that may seem.

What's more, if Terri Schiavo is allowed to live, even if she never comes out of her vegetative state (as she likely won't), no harm would be done to him. Michael Schiavo would not so much lose his fight as surrender. But he'd have his own life back, without this obsession at the core. Surely that would be a relief.

It would be a brutally hard decision. Michael Schiavo would have to decide to stop fighting even as he is -- at least in Judge Greer's courtroom -- winning.

But this isn't so much a court case. It's a grudge match. Somebody has to yell stop. The judges can't or won't, as long as the Schindlers have one last breath, one last appeal.

The buck stops with Michael Schiavo. It would be the toughest call of his life, but it would offer a most valuable lesson: Sometimes victory comes only through surrender.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 226-3402.

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