Thirty-nine-year-old Terri Schiavo may not live to see her 40th birthday. She’s not terminally ill. She’s not engaged in inherently dangerous activities. She’s not on Death Row.
So, you might wonder, why is she about to die? Schiavo has a profound cognitive disability. This should entitle her to the best of care. Instead, Judge George W. Greer of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, in Clearwater, Florida, is about to order medical personnel to withhold tube-supplied food and water until she dies. Terri’s dehydration will be slow, taking 10-14 agonizing days.
Judge Greer is acting at the behest of Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, who petitioned the court five years ago for permission to withdraw his wife’s tube-supplied food and water. In a normal case, a spouse would be trusted to make medical decisions in the best interests of an incapacitated husband or wife. But this is not a normal case. Consider the following facts:
After Terri collapsed from unknown causes in 1990, she became profoundly cognitively disabled.
Michael filed a medical-malpractice lawsuit, during which he said he would care for her for the rest of her life, which, assuming proper care, would be a normal lifespan. He also presented at trial a medical-rehabilitation expert who had developed a plan to provide support for Terri to maximize her ability to respond to her environment.
A jury awarded $1.3 million in the malpractice case, of which $750,000 was put in trust to pay for the kind of care that Michael promised to provide Terri.
Michael never kept his promise.
Within months of the money being deposited in the bank, Michael ordered a do-not-resuscitate order placed on Terri’s chart. He has also repeatedly denied her other forms of medical care, such as treatment for infections.
Once the money was in the bank, according to affidavits filed by nurses under penalty of perjury, Michael ordered that Terri be denied stimulation.
In the mid 1990s, according to another nurse’s affidavit filed under penalty of perjury, Michael was overheard saying things such as, “When is she going to die,” “Has she died yet?” and “When is that bitch going to die?” (This affidavit was only recently filed. Michael has not yet filed a response.)
Michael dated after the malpractice trial; he is now engaged to be married. He lives with his fiancé, with whom he has one child and another on the way. He reportedly plans to marry his fiancé as soon as his wife’s death is induced.
Money that was intended to pay for Terri’s treatment and rehabilitation has instead gone to lawyers Michael retained to obtain a court order to bring about her death.
If Terri dies, Michael will inherit what is left of the $750,000 (if any remains) and all other property they owned.
Michael moved Terri from a nursing home to a hospice three years ago even though Terri is not terminally ill. A hospice specializes in dying patients and is not as equipped to provide patients like Terri with proper care.
Judge Greer has ruled that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). This ruling was necessary under Florida law to allow dehydration. Under Florida law, this means that Terri exhibits no voluntary action or cognitive behavior of any kind and is unable to communicate or interact purposely with the environment.
Yet, affidavits filed by nurses who cared for Terri claim that she has responded to them, can speak, and can even swallow food. Moreover, a picture is worth 1,000 words. Videotapes of Terri clearly show her responding to requests. For example, a closed-eyed Terri is asked to open her eyes by a doctor. Her eyes flutter and she does as he requests. She is asked in another video to follow a balloon with her eyes, and she does. In a heartbreaking video, Terri’s mother kisses her on the cheek and Terri smiles and responds, clearly happy that her mom is with her. These and other videos can be seen by visiting www.terrisfight.org.
Dr. William Hammesfahr, a world-renowned expert in cases such as Terri’s — and a Nobel Prize nominee — testified that Terri is not in a PVS. He also testified that he believes he could help her improve her circumstances through proper medical treatment. Ten other physicians have testified or given statements that Terri is not unconscious. Judge Greer instead chose to believe contrary testimony by a doctor who rarely sees Terri and another doctor, who makes an avocation of testifying in cases such as Terri’s throughout the country, always on the side of dehydration.
Despite the clear financial and personal conflicts of interest, Judge Greer repeatedly sides with Michael and against Terri’s father, mother, and siblings, who want to care for her for the rest of her life. This means that the man who might benefit financially from his wife’s death and who has clear personal reasons for wanting Terri to die continues to have almost sole say over how she is treated and cared for — or denied care — on a daily basis.
Greer will set the date for Terri’s dehydration on September 11 (amazingly). This order will be based on testimony from Michael and his brother and sister-in-law arguing that Terri said she would not want to be maintained in this condition. Never mind that Michael first brought this alleged statement up only after he decided that the time had come for Terri to die by dehydration. Never mind that these conversations never came up when Michael was asking a jury for a $20 million medical-malpractice award. Never mind that none of Terri’s blood family ever recall her saying any such thing. Never mind that Terri is a Catholic and this dehydration would violate Catholic moral teaching.
A PLEA TO GOVERNOR BUSH
Time is running out. Terri may be days away from a dehydration order. The only hope for Terri Schiavo may now be Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Gov. Bush is aware of the Terri Schiavo case. He has received more than 27,000 petition signatures from Americans across the country who are enraged at how Terri has been treated and the death that is planned for her.
On August 26, reacting to the political heat, and no doubt genuinely concerned with Terri’s plight, Bush wrote a letter to Judge Greer requesting that he postpone the dehydration and appoint a guardian ad litem to look into Terri’s case. In this regard, it is worth noting that Terri once had a guardian ad litem who recommended against the requested dehydration. Perhaps this is why Judge Greer respectfully told Gov. Bush that he would put the governor’s letter in the file with no action taken.
Bush’s letter was a nice first step but was clearly insufficient. The time has come for the State of Florida to attempt to formally intervene in the case. Indeed, there are enough substantial questions about the propriety of what is transpiring in Terri’s case, that Bush should take whatever legal action is necessary to make the state Terri’s official guardian.
Taking such action would prevent a husband with too many conflicts of interest from continuing to be in charge of Terri’s care. It would permit an objective, professional guardian with no intimate ties to Terri to bring order to this emotionally devastating case and determine:
The extent of Terri’s disability and responsiveness;
The likelihood that therapy could have a meaningful chance of improving Terri’s condition;
The propriety of the care that Terri has received; and,
Whether the benefit of the doubt should go to keeping Terri alive or letting her die by dehydration.
If Michael Schiavo dehydrated a horse, he could go to jail. But getting a judge to order medical personnel to do the same thing to a human being is perfectly legal. The hour is late but Terri Schiavo is still alive; as long as she is, Gov. Bush can still act to protect her right to life.
If you agree with this article, please contact Governor Jeb Bush at:
Governor Jeb Bush
Florida Capitol Building, PL-05
Tallahassee, Florida 32399-1050
— Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an attorney and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. His revised and updated Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder was recently published by Spence Publishing.