Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin at news conference yesterday (Photo: David Nee)
The autopsy report concluding Terri Schiavo suffered no trauma prior to her collapse under disputed circumstances in 1990 has no bearing on the moral evaluation of the high-profile “right-to-die” case, stated clerics and leaders of faith-based groups responding to the findings.
The Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner in Florida yesterday concluded Schiavo’s brain was about half of its expected size.
“This damage was irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons,” said Jon Thogmartin at a news conference.
But Fr. Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest who was with Terri Schiavo in the final moments of her life and has called her death a murder, said her “physical injuries and disabilities never made her less of a person.”
“No amount of brain injury ever justifies denying a person proper humane care,” Pavone said. “That includes food and water.”
Pavone said a person with a “profoundly atrophied” brain needs profound care and love.
“Terri did not die from an atrophied brain,” the priest said. “She died from an atrophy of compassion on the part of her estranged husband and those who helped him to have her deliberately killed.”
Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, concurred, saying the autopsy results provide some
answers concerning her physical condition “but in no way do these findings justify the cruel death by dehydration that was imposed on a living human being.”
Brown said that while the medical examiner reported that Terri Schiavo would not have been able to recover, he did not indicate her injuries would have killed her.
“The fact remains that Terri was not dying, did not have a terminal condition and could have continued to survive with proper nutrition and hydration,” Brown said.
“There are those who will use this autopsy report to claim that the
death by dehydration imposed on Terri Schiavo was compassionate or
merciful,” she continued. “Others would say such a life is not worth
living. Such thinking is misguided and absolutely wrong. Those
decisions are not ours to make.”
Wendy Wright, senior policy director with Concerned Women for America, noted the autopsy report, amid all of its details, simply confirmed “removal of [Terri Schiavo's] feeding tube resulted in her death.”
“There is no medical condition or disability that should ever be championed as a justifiable reason to deny water to a human being,” Wright said. “Every human life has worth and a purpose apart from its ‘merit’ to society that must be vigorously defended and upheld, not crushed.”
Schiavo died March 31, nearly two weeks after the feeding tube that had kept her alive was removed under a court order obtained by her husband, Michael Schiavo.
Her death ended a bitter legal battle between Michael Schiavo, who said his wife did not want to be kept alive artificially, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. Both Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers found doctors to support their views.
Testimony in a 1992 civil trial indicated that her heart stopped probably because of a severe chemical imbalance brought on by an eating disorder. The Schindlers, though, do not believe she had an eating disorder and have accused Michael Schiavo of abusing his wife, a charge he vehemently denies.
George Felos, attorney for Michael Schiavo, said the report confirms what he argued in court.
“The courts have found that there was no abuse of Terri, no evidence of abuse, and that’s what the medical examiner found,” Felos said.
But the Schindlers’ attorney David Gibbs questioned the finding of no abuse and said the report leaves many questions unanswered.
Gibbs said it’s troubling that Terri Schiavo collapsed at 4:30 a.m. Feb. 25, 1990, but her husband did not call for help until 5:40 a.m.
Medics did not arive until 5:52 a.m.
“Those 70 minutes are very, very troubling,” Gibbs told reporters Wednesday. “Clearly, when you have a brain that is not getting blood, these are emergency moments and every second is precious. 4:30 to 5:40 is a significant time period.”
Medical Examiner John Thogmartin said, however, Schiavo was tested thoroughly in the hours after her collapse for signs of abuse and trauma, and nothing was found.
But he pointed out that his investigation was unable to determine what caused Schiavo’s collapse.
Nevertheless, he found no evidence for the theory presented in court that the collapse was triggered by an electrolyte imbalance caused by an eating disorder.
The report said no one had ever witnessed Schiavo bingeing and purging, and family members said she had a big meal the evening prior to her collapse and was not in a position to covertly purge the meal.
Because of that, the report said, her potassium level was “an unreliable measure of her pre-arrest potassium. Thus the main piece of evidence supporting a diagnosis of Bulimia Nevosa is suspect or, at least, can be explained by her clinical condition at the time of the blood draw.”
The report also addressed the issue of whether Schiavo was in a “persistent vegetative state,” as determined by physicians presented by Michael Schiavo, or “minimally conscious,” as argued by the Schindler family’s appointed experts.
The brain examination, according to the autopsy report, was “consistent with a persistent vegetative state.”
But Thogmartin emphasized such a diagnosis can only be made on a living patient and cannot be confirmed with certainty through an autopsy.
The medical examiner also said Schiavo died from dehydration and would not have been able to eat or drink if she had been given food by mouth as her parents’ requested.
“Removal of her feeding tube would have resulted in her death whether she was fed or hydrated by mouth or not,” Thogmartin told reporters.
The Schindlers had argued, however, that their daughter could have relearned to swallow through therapy.
Act of Congress
The Schiavo case was the subject of an act of Congress and several Supreme Court reviews, dominating international press coverage during the month of March.
A decision by the Supreme Court the night before her death against intervening sealed her fate. The emergency request argued the federal courts did not consider whether there was enough “clear and convincing” evidence that Terri Schiavo had expressed a wish to not live in her current condition. The trial court in Pinellas County, Fla., determined she was in a persistent vegetative state. The Schindlers countered that assessment with statements from neurologists who claimed she was in a “minimally conscious state,” able to respond to stimuli.
Terri Schiavo’s life-sustaining feeding tube was removed by court order March 18 after a decade of bitter legal wrangling between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers, who insisted their daughter had a strong will to live.
Her body was taken to the Pinellas County medical examiner’s officer for an autopsy. It was then cremated and interred in Pennsylvania, according to Michael Schiavo’s wishes.
Some legal analysts, while respectful of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s efforts, criticized the governor for not using the executive powers they believe he had to take Terri Schiavo into protective custody.
Bush filed a motion to that end with Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George W. Greer, who had presided over the case for seven years, but it was rejected. The governor’s critics maintain, however, he did not need judicial permission to act.
President Bush rushed back to Washington during a vacation to sign a bill giving federal courts jurisdiction in the case. However, the federal courts ignored the act of Congress and left the case with Greer.
Editor’s note: “Life and Death in America” – a stunning special investigative report that starts with the Terri Schiavo story, but goes on to expose as never before America’s rapidly expanding euthanasia/”right-to-die” movement – is the focus of the May issue of WND’s acclaimed monthly Whistleblower magazine.
For background on the 15-year saga, read “The whole Terri Schiavo story.”
WorldNetDaily has been reporting on the Terri Schiavo story since 2002 – far longer than most other national news organization – and exposing the many troubling, scandalous, and possibly criminal, aspects of the case that to this day rarely surface in news reports. Read WorldNetDaily’s unparalleled, in-depth coverage of the life-and-death fight over Terri Schiavo, including over 150 original stories and columns.
Court documents and other information are posted on the Schindler family website.
Links to all “Terri briefs” regarding the governor’s defense of Terri’s Law are on the Florida Supreme Court website, public information.