Precedents

Oct. 21, 2003: Florida enters the Terri Schiavo case


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AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

In 1998, after eight years watching his wife wither in a persistent vegetative state, Michael Schiavo petitioned a Florida court to remove the feeding tubes that were keeping her alive. Though her doctors offered little to no hope of recovery from cardiac arrest, Terri Schiavo’s parents—Robert and Mary Schindler—objected, continuing a bitter battle for custody that endured for more than a decade.

Under a court order to do so, doctors first removed Schiavo’s feeding tubes in April 2001. Two days later, a different court ordered them reinserted. After many more rounds in various courts, on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003, the tubes were removed again. Though pro-life and religious groups urged them to intervene, public officials at first expressed reluctance to intrude into a private family affair. But the release of a controversial video, purporting to show Schiavo responding to voices and touch, created wide-scale public pressure for Florida legislators to act.

Gov. Jeb Bush added the issue to a special session of the Florida legislature, and after two days lawmakers produced a short bill that applied only to Schiavo. On Oct. 20 at 10:10 p.m., the Florida House passed the bill with no legal analysis or committee hearings. The Senate approved it 17 hours later, and at 4:30 p.m. Bush signed it into law. Two hours later, state officials removed Schiavo from her hospice to a Clearwater hospital, where feeding tubes were reinserted.

Nearly a year later, a unanimous Florida Supreme Court declared “Terri’s Law” an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers. “We are a nation of laws, and we must govern our decisions by the rule of law and not by our own emotions,” the justices ruled.

For a time, the Schindlers sought federal intervention and received a sympathetic response on Capitol Hill. Subpoenas were issued. A bill granting federal jurisdiction was passed. Court challenges were filed. But the results proved the same. After the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Atlanta denied all appeals, Schiavo’s feeding tubes were removed for the third and final time. On March 31, 2005, 13 days after the tubes were removed—more than 15 years after she was stricken—Terri Schiavo died.

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