It was six years ago today, March 31, 2005, that 41-year-old Terri Schiavo succumbed to 13 days of court-ordered dehydration and starvation under the watchful eyes of a security guard posted nearby.
Thousands of protesters were gathered outside her Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice, surveilled by rooftop sharpshooters paid for by the hospice at a cost of $98,162.
Schiavo’s estranged husband, Michael Schiavo, and his attorney took turns with her parents and siblings and their attorney holding a bedside vigil during what right-to-die advocates called her “death process,” which was triggered by the court-ordered removal of her feeding tube and accompanying ban on oral hydration and nutrition on March 18, 2005.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge George Greer’s latest death order concluded an 11-year tug of war over Schiavo’s life waged by divided family members, and came despite the unprecedented intervention of first the Florida Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush, and then Congress and President George W. Bush.
Michael Schiavo alleged his wife, who had no written advance directive in place when she mysteriously collapsed at the age of 26, suffered cardiac arrest and sustained a brain injury, would not want to live in her incapacitated state.
Schiavo’s parents and siblings, who suspect Michael Schiavo had something to do with Terri’s collapse, disputed his claim and argued the Catholic woman valued life and would have benefited from rehabilitation and range-of-motion therapy she was denied for 12 years by legal guardian Michael Schiavo.
Contrary to media reports, Schiavo was neither brain dead, dying, in a coma nor kept alive artificially by machines. The brain-injured woman breathed on her own and appeared cognitively responsive in video taken during a 2002 court-ordered neurological evaluation.
Pinellas-Pasco County Chief medical examiner Jon Thogmartin who performed an autopsy on Schiavo’s body said it was a “miracle” she survived over an hour without a measurable blood pressure the morning she collapsed before paramedics succeeded in resuscitating her.
He further found it remarkable she lived 15 years after this event, and even more remarkable she endured “marked dehydration” for nearly two weeks before her heart gave out. He called it a “testament” to her strong heart and estimated she would have lived another decade if she had not been dehydrated to death.
Per another Greer court order, no video was allowed to be taken of Schiavo over the 13 days of her “death process,” just as cameras had been barred from her room for the prior five years in which she had resided at hospice.
As right-to-life and right-to-die advocates, medical experts, political pundits and news commentators debated the morality of death by dehydration across the television airwaves around the clock, two divergent versions of her last hours were offered by the eyewitnesses.
Michael Schiavo and his right-to-die activist-attorney, George Felos, variously described her as “peaceful,” “beautiful,” and free of pain.
In stark contrast, Schiavo’s parents, siblings and their spiritual adviser characterized her as appearing “ghoulish,” “in deep distress and suffering” and “fighting like hell.”
Father Frank Pavone described the expression on Schiavo’s face in her final hour as “a combination of dreaded fear and sadness.” He recalled, “Her eyes were oscillating back and forth in a way that was just frightening.”
“This death was not for the siblings and spouse and parents; this was for Terri,” Felos pronounced when it was over. “She has a right to die peaceably in a loving setting and with dignity.”
Schiavo’s death represents a victory for the right-to-die movement as it strives to establish a best-interest standard, in which judges become the arbiters of life and death for the incapacitated who cannot speak for themselves.
The right to die through the refusal of medical treatment was recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1975 as a fundamental right to privacy for the terminally ill. Then in 1990 both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court acquiesced to the removal of artificially provided sustenance, or feeding tubes, from those in terminal conditions who had provided “clear and convincing” evidence of their wishes.
For right-to-die proponents, the best-interest standard substitutes for clear and convincing evidence.
Felos’ original 1998 petition for the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube recommended that if Judge Greer was not persuaded that Michael Schiavo’s testimony of newly recollected conversations he allegedly had with his wife prior to her brain injury provided clear and convincing evidence of a wish to die, then the court should act in the best interest of a woman who was in a condition in which “public consensus” holds she would not want to remain alive.
The mantra of pro-death supporters throughout Schiavo v. Schindler was, “Let her die.”
“But she wasn’t dying,” Schiavo’s brother, Bobby Schindler, recently commented to WND. “Hers was a forced death. She was forced to die through the removal of food and water. It wasn’t ‘beautiful’ or ‘peaceful.’ It was barbaric.”
Long before “Terri Schiavo” became a household name, WND brought her plight to the attention of the nation and the world in a Nov. 13, 2002 story by WND news editor Diana Lynne. It would be the first of nearly 500 stories published by WND, ultimately elevating to the No. 1 story in the nation and the world in the days leading up to and following her death.
Lynne was so moved by her involvement in the story, she later authored “Terri’s Story: The Court-Ordered Death of an American Woman” for WND Books.
WND is the oldest and largest independent Internet news-gathering agency, founded in May 1997. It has been the source of many of the biggest stories in the nation and world during the last 14 years.