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After the fury, peace

Terri Schiavo's passing ends long battle.

Published March 31, 2005

Terri Schiavo   photo
[Special to the Times]

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PINELLAS PARK - Theresa Marie Schiavo, the shy Pinellas woman whose fate led to international debate and attention from the Vatican to the White House to the halls of Congress, died Thursday morning. She was 41.

The long, tortuous legal battle over her life ended when she died in her hospice bed, more than 13 days after doctors removed the feeding tube that had sustained the brain-damaged woman for 15 years.

She died at 9:05 a.m. Lawyers made the announcement shortly before 10 a.m.

For the past two weeks, protesters have shouted and chanted outside Hospice House Woodside, where Schiavo lived. News programs, radio shows, politicians and advocates have talked about her with little pause, even though most had never met her.

The legal odyssey over the fate of the St. Petersburg woman was unlike any in American history, a heartbreaking fight between her husband and parents that lasted seven years and traveled to six courts as first the state, then the nation and finally the world watched transfixed.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court again refused to intervene in the case and reinsert her feeding tube. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George W. Greer, who ordered Schiavo's feeding tube removed on March 18, was informed of the news while he was at the Clearwater Courthouse.

Terri Schiavo died in a room closely guarded by police. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, who led efforts to end his wife's life saying she would not want to live by artificial means, spent the night by her bedside. He did not immediately make a statement.

Her brother, Bobby Schindler and her sister, Suzanne Vitadamo, were with her early Thursday morning just before she died.

Strangers, inspired by the symbol she had become in one of the most closely watched right-to-die cases in more than a decade, remained vigilant outside Hospice House Woodside.

Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, along with her siblings and protesters, all had hoped for the miracle.

On Wednesday, the parents' lawyers made their final last-ditch effort to keep their daughter alive through the courts. But initial optimism faded quickly when first the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta and then the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals.

Not the efforts of President Bush, Gov. Jeb Bush, lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington, nor the emotional pleas of cardinals in Vatican City, could keep Schiavo alive.

Gov. Jeb Bush released a statement within an hour of the announcement of Schiavo's death.

"After an extraordinarily difficult and tragic journey, Terri Schiavo is at rest," Bush said in a written statement. "Columba and I offer our condolences to Mr. and Mrs. Schindler, Bobby Schindler, Suzanne Vitadamo and to all those who offered their prayers and support to Terri's family over these past weeks, months and years.

"These prayers were not in vain. Many across our state and around the world are deeply grieved by the way Terri died. 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."

Perhaps most of all, Terri Schiavo's case will be long remembered as a historic showdown between the judicial and legislative branches of government.

Indeed, the debate over her life became an international epic in recent weeks, spurred by an 11th-hour effort by the U.S. Congress to pass a bill it hoped would force the courts to reinsert her feeding tube.

President Bush rushed back to Washington from his Texas ranch to sign the bill.

In the end, however, the nation's most powerful politicians could not overturn the order of one local judge. Despite death threats and political pressure, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George W. Greer remained steadfast.

Michael Schiavo used to say his wife really died Feb. 25, 1990, when he found her collapsed in their St. Petersburg apartment, unresponsive, her heart stopped, her brain slowly starved of oxygen.

Doctors believed the collapse was caused by a potassium imbalance stemming from a possible eating disorder. The courts ruled it left Terri Schiavo in a persistent vegetative state, the higher functions of her brain destroyed.

Michael Schiavo said it left his wife unable to see, hear, think, feel sorrow or joy, remember or recognize anyone around her. The Schindlers disputed that, and said their daughter reacted to them and might have improved with therapy.

"Terri's emotions are gone," Michael Schiavo said this month. "What's there is a shell of Terri. There's nothing there anymore."

But Mary Schindler once said, "Doctors aren't gods. They don't know."

At first, Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers worked together. Michael Schiavo said he held hope that his wife might recover, but said he slowly lost it.

In 1992, a jury awarded his wife $700,000 and Michael Schiavo $300,000 in a medical malpractice case. The next year, on Valentine's Day, husband and parents argued, in part about the money, and never worked together again.

In May 1998, Michael Schiavo petitioned the Pinellas-Pasco courts to remove his wife's feeding tube, saying statements she made before 1990 indicated she would not want to live as she is.

The parents disagreed and began the long legal battle. Greer ruled Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state and ordered the tube removed. Five times the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the Schindlers' appeals.

Not long before the end, 2nd District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Chris Altenbernd remarked in an opinion that judges must follow the rule of law, whatever the popular clamor to do differently.

The case, he noted, was unprecedented.

"Not only has Mrs. Schiavo's case been given due process," the judge wrote, "but few, if any, similar cases have ever been afforded this heightened level of process."

It also presented one of the central moral questions of our time: When should someone be allowed to die?

It divided a nation, splintered the president's political party and created divisions among the faithful. But all of the larger issues should never have mattered, said Jay Wolfson, a University of South Florida professor who reviewed Schiavo's case for the governor.

"I hope all of this has some value for Terri," he said last week as the courts and Congress battled over her fate. "All of it. It's about her. It's not about anybody else."

-- Times staff writers David Karp and Chris Tisch contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 1, 2005, 11:49:25]

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