Schiavo's case lands in Congress

Republicans in Congress are working on bills to prevent the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.

Published March 11, 2005

WASHINGTON - With avenues to keep Terri Schiavo alive closing in Florida, they were opening in the nation's capital Thursday. The tide turned decidedly in favor of the parents who want to prolong their brain-damaged daughter's life.

Just eight days before the court-ordered deadline to remove Schiavo's feeding tube, Republicans on Capitol Hill rallied around the case that has become the cause celebre of conservative and religious groups.

Congressional leaders fast-tracked a bill that could lead to a federal court review of the case - and perhaps another trial in Pinellas County.

Almost a dozen conservative and Christian groups marshaled forces and urged Americans to lobby Congress to prolong Schiavo's life.

RightMarch.com, which formed to provide a political voice for the right, announced plans to run ads in national newspapers and on radio starting Monday.

Rep. Joseph Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican who spoke about Schiavo on the House floor Thursday, said his colleagues were working on other Schiavo bills and the House leadership is "working night and day to save her life."

"Death by dehydration is a painful, agonizing and arduous process that takes 10 to 14 days," Pitts said. "Compared to starvation and dehydration, death by hanging, firing squad or even electric chair seem humane."

The gathering momentum in favor of federal intervention was palpable, and came through loud and clear in the different takes by the attorneys on each side of the dispute.

George Felos, attorney for Michael Schiavo, sounded resigned that politics in the nation's capital could delay the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube the way it did in 2003, when Florida's governor and Legislature stepped in.

"It's certainly disheartening to see them falling all over each other to pander to these groups," Felos said. "It's a massive campaign of smear and misinformation. It's a repeat of Terri's Law."

The attorney for Schiavo's parents had the opposite view.

"We're very encouraged at what is happening in Congress," said David Gibbs III, attorney for Bob and Mary Schindler. "The family is profoundly grateful."

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The bill would require incapacitated people without living wills to be appointed attorneys before artificial life support is terminated.

Were it to become law, Schiavo's parents could ask a federal judge to order a new trial for Terri Schiavo in state court, because she had no such attorney when the case was tried in 2000.

Sponsored by Florida Sen. Mel Martinez and Rep. Dave Weldon, both Republicans, the bill was introduced on Tuesday. By Thursday, it had 103 sponsors in the House and seven sponsors in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a surgeon, is trying to get it to the Senate floor next week without being heard in committee first. Tom DeLay, House majority leader, is working to get the bill in front of the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

It was unclear whether Democrats would try to stop the bill. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said he prefers for it to be heard in a committee first.

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, said he hopes for Democratic support and has heard no direct opposition. He said recent Democratic attempts to reach religious voters, who overwhelmingly voted Republican in the last election, could translate into Democratic cooperation.

"The Democrats are trying to find their own voice with the faith community," Brownback said. "Here would be an easy one for them to say, sure."

The bill would apply only to those who meet four requirements:

They must be legally incapacitated; there must be a state court ruling to withhold sustenance; there must be no written directive; and there must be a legal dispute, as in Schiavo's case.

It would allow a "party of standing" to ask a federal court to review the case to ensure that the person's rights of due process weren't violated. The procedure is similar to that in death penalty cases, which take years, sometimes a decade, to wind through the courts.

If a court agreed that a person's rights were violated, it could order the case back to state court for a new trial.

Felos said such a law eventually would be overturned as unconstitutional - as was "Terri's Law" in Florida - because it cannot retroactively affect a case a judge ruled on five years ago, and because a federal right to refuse unwanted medical treatment already exists.

A federal court could decide Schiavo's rights were violated because she did not have her own attorney at the original trial, who would call witnesses and present evidence solely on her behalf.

Though Schiavo has had at least one guardian ad litem, who is supposed to act in her best interests, a lawyer would be different because he would be able to present his own case.

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A sign directing reporters to Thursday's press conference misspelled her name as "Terry" Schiavo. Representatives from almost a dozen conservative and Christian groups attended, as did some of the 17 disability organizations supporting the Schindlers, including the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

They talked about her "death sentence" and "execution." They said it was illegal to starve animals to death. They said she was treated worse than death row inmates.

"Even the Nazis were hesitant to use starvation and dehydration as a means of inflicting death," said Paul Schenck of the National Pro-Life Action Center. "They reserved it for only their most cruel acts."

Groups at the press conference included National Right to Life Committee, Family Research Council and Religious Freedom Coalition. On their Web sites, the groups encourage people to write and call their member of Congress, as they did Florida lawmakers in 2003.

RightMarch.com said 30,000 to 35,000 have written to their members of Congress through their Web site, and through pleas to their members.

"The system must not be allowed to be twisted so those who are unable to speak for themselves are brushed aside by our courts," said William Greene, the group's president. "The right to legal counsel and due process must apply to every American."

They accused Michael Schiavo of living with another woman and squandering hundreds of thousands of dollars from a medical malpractice suit. They called the judge biased and said he failed to follow the law. They said the media mischaracterized their motives.

"Anyone whose motives are as highly questionable as Michael Schiavo's should not be granted the legal right to determine if someone else's life is worth preserving," said Lanier Swann of the Concerned Women for America.

Schiavo, now 41, suffered severe brain damage in 1990 when she had a heart attack and collapsed in her St. Petersburg home. Her husband has been fighting for seven years to remove her feeding tube. Her parents are fighting to keep her fed at the Pinellas Park hospice facility where she lives.

A Pinellas judge ruled Schiavo's feeding tube could be removed after hearing testimony at a trial that she would not have wanted to live that way. Twice she stopped receiving food and water; both times the decision was reversed.

Schiavo is in what some doctors say is a persistent vegetative state, and doctors have said she cannot understand what is going on around her. The Schindlers dispute that, saying she laughs and cries, and could recover with therapy.

At the press conference, reporters were given a three-page statement of Barbara Weller, one of the Schindlers' attorneys in Florida, of her account of seeing Schiavo in December 2004. Weller writes that Schiavo looked at people, smiled and used words like "uh uh."

"When her mother was close to her, Terri's whole face lit up. She smiled. She looked directly at her mother and made all sorts of happy sounds," she wrote. "When her mother talked to her, Terri was quiet and obviously listening."

A reporter asked if it was true that Schiavo could speak 10 years ago before her husband ceased her therapy. That allegation has never been made, not even at the first trial.

Ken Connor, who represented Jeb Bush in trying to pass Terri's Law, answered the question this way: "There's no question that over the course of time Terri has become more unresponsive while in her husband's care," he said.

"She has been subjected to profound isolation, including light depravation, over the last number of years."

If Schiavo's feeding tube is removed, she is expected to die within two weeks.

Staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at kumar@sptimes.com or 202 463-0576.