Disability groups back Jeb Bush on Schiavo case

By Sarah Foster

A coalition of 17 national disability-rights organizations have thrown their support behind Gov. Jeb Bush in his legal battle over the constitutionality of the emergency legislation that enabled him to save Terri Schindler-Schiavo’s life last fall.

In a friend of the court brief filed July 12, the groups urge the Florida Supreme Court to reverse Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird’s May 6 ruling that the governor overstepped constitutional bounds when he invoked “Terri’s Law” to halt the starvation death of the 40-year-old, brain-disabled woman, whose estranged husband and guardian, Michael Schiavo, obtained court permission to remove the feeding tube she depends on for sustenance.

“A judge’s order to terminate the life of a woman with severe disabilities is not a private family matter,” said attorney Max Lapertosa, the brief’s author, in a press release.

“Terminating Ms. Schiavo’s life support would not be possible without the authority of the courts,” he added. “This case reflects whether our society and legal system value the lives of people with disabilities equally to those without disabilities.”

Passed Oct. 21 by the Florida Legislature, the emergency measure authorized Bush to have Terri’s feeding tube reinserted six days after it had been removed in accordance with Schiavo’s wishes and a court order.

Schiavo and his attorney, “right-to-die” advocate George Felos, promptly sued the governor, arguing that Bush and the lawmakers had not only interfered in the business of the state’s courts, an infringement of the separation-of-powers provisions of the Florida Constitution, but violated Terri’s “right to privacy” as well.

Since 1998, Schiavo has claimed that before her brain injury 14 years ago Terri told him she’d never want to be kept alive “by artificial means.” Several doctors have sworn in court that she is in a “persistent vegetative state,” is unaware of her surroundings, cannot respond to others and will never improve.

Her parents and siblings doubt the statements attributed to her. They say she is alert, responsive and could be rehabilitated if given appropriate therapy.

To date the Florida courts have accepted Schiavo’s version of Terri’s wishes: that by removing her feeding tube he is doing what she indicated she’d want done and to interfere would violate her privacy.

Terri responding to her mother from video clip on Terrisfight.org.

The American Civil Liberties Union joined Felos as co-counsel on Schiavo’s side against the governor. Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU, denounced Bush’s actions as “unprecedented.”

“This dangerous abuse of power by the governor and Florida lawmakers should concern everyone who may face difficult and agonizing decisions involving the medical condition of a family member,” he said.

Not Dead Yet

The disability community sees it otherwise. The lead amici on the brief, Not Dead Yet, is a grass-roots advocacy group founded in 1996 to oppose euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. NDY and the other 16 are among the nation’s leading civil-rights organizations representing people with disabilities.

Their brief explains the groups came together because they realize “the standards being applied to Terri, if defined broadly enough, can be applied to the thousands of people with disabilities who, like Terri, can’t articulate their own views, but must rely on third parties as substitute decision makers.

“The need for limits on the powers of such decision makers is nowhere more clear than on a question as fundamental as life or death, because the consequences of abuse or misjudgment are both ultimate and irreversible. For this reason, neither a court nor any third party may base a decision on their own view of the affected person’s ‘quality of life.’ Only the person’s own desires may drive this determination.”

A civil-rights issue

Diane Coleman, founder and president of Not Dead Yet, says the fact that these organizations have come together is “remarkable,” since they’re highly diverse and sometimes at odds with each other on policy matters and strategies.

But they recognize the civil-rights implications of Terri’s situation, and Coleman is perplexed and angry that the media don’t as well.

“Our lives are frankly threatened – the lives of our constituents, our members – and we feel we must come together and speak as loudly and forcefully as possible to be heard,” she told WorldNetDaily. “Yet each time we’ve done that we’ve been ignored.”

Previous efforts to raise public awareness include two earlier amicus briefs with numerous amici, with Not Dead Yet as the lead amici for those as well. And last October some 25 organizations adopted a statement affirming Terri’s right to food, water and rehabilitative therapy, which Schiavo has denied her for over 10 years.

“Imagine any other minority group hollering out, ‘They’re killing us and trying to make it legal and acceptable’ – and not even being noticed when the topic itself is covered so much,” Coleman exclaimed.

Nor is Terri’s case unique: “There have been others, but hers is the latest and the biggest.” And like Terri’s, the others were labeled “right to die.”

Coleman hastened to add that NDY and the disability community in general agree that an individual has the right to refuse treatment, “as long as it’s with informed consent, with other options being provided if a person wants them. We don’t want people to be wrongfully forced.”

“But that’s not what this is about,” she said emphatically. “This is about surrogate decision-making. These [right-to-die] cases involve surrogate decision-making, where some other person is deciding for you.”

“When you look at groups among the amici, like ARC and TASH, both of which represent people with significant cognizant disabilities, they’re saying ‘our members, our constituents are significantly affected by what happens in this and similar guardianship cases.’

“What will be the standards for a guardian to take away a person’s food and water or any medical treatment?” Coleman asked.

“The issue of removing food and water is particularly disturbing because the person then dies of something that will kill anyone. There’s no pretence that they’ve died from some underlying condition,” she observed.

The changing statutes

Steve Drake, research analyst for NDY, drew a particularly bleak picture for WND: Not only is Terri’s case not unique – it’s commonplace.

He recalled that back in 1996 the big issue was voluntary physician-assisted suicide, and Not Dead Yet was founded to oppose it.

“Lo and behold, it’s 2004, and we’re spending most of our time on issues like that of Terri Schiavo,” he said – essentially non-voluntary euthanasia of incapacitated people.

Many of the phone calls and e-mails the group receives from around the country are from people “struggling and fighting with medical professionals or other relatives” who are anxious to end someone’s life.

“The kind of thing that’s happening to Terri Schiavo is happening every day and, I can guarantee, in every state,” Drake declared. “A lot of different players have been making inroads on making it a lot easier for medical professionals to end people’s lives in nursing homes and hospitals and hospices.”

As Drake sees it, the “players” in the medical and legal communities don’t want the public to have “a heightened awareness of what’s going on, and really don’t want to call a lot of attention to it.”

At the same time, the practices in various health-care facilities are gradually becoming legally permissible as laws authorizing them are being surreptitiously passed by lawmakers and slipped into the state codes without public discussion.

“They are getting more in-sync with the law,” Drake explained, “because over the past 10 years there’s been a movement – again within the medical and legal communities – to quietly change the statutes in each of the states, easing the restrictions on what it takes to end the life of somebody through withholding or withdrawal of medical treatment, including food and water and antibiotics.

“The laws in Florida and many other states are not the same laws we had 10 years ago,” he said. “That didn’t happen by accident. It happened as a result of advocacy by the end-of-life care coalition.”

The groups listed on the amicus brief are:

Not Dead Yet, ADAPT, The Arc of the United States, ADAPT, Center on Self-Determination, Center on Human Policy at Syracuse University, Disability Rights Center, Freedom Clearinghouse, Hospice Patients’ Alliance, Mouth Magazine, National Council on Independent Living, National Disabled Students Union, National Spinal Cord Injury Association, Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered, Society for Disability Studies, TASH, World Association of Persons with Disabilities, and World Institute on Disability.

Questionable circumstances

As WorldNetDaily has reported, the Schindlers have been locked in a lengthy legal battle with their son-in-law, Michael Schiavo, that began three years after Terri collapsed under unexplained circumstances in February 1990 at the age of 26. Oxygen to her brain was cut off for several minutes, leaving her severely brain-disabled, unable to talk and dependent upon a feeding tube for sustenance.

Robert and Mary Schindler, Terri’s parents, and her siblings claim that Terri is alert, has a strong will to live, and could be rehabilitated with therapy. Over a dozen physicians, therapists and speech pathologists agree with the parents.

The Schindlers also maintain that Schiavo’s interests are conflicted since he has lived with another woman for at least nine years with whom he has had two children.

During a weeklong trial in Jan. 2000, Schiavo convinced probate Judge George Greer she is in a “persistent vegetative state” – a requirement under Florida law for removing a feeding tube from a non-terminally ill person.

Through a series of legal maneuvers the Schindlers managed to keep the case and their daughter alive, but their options appeared to have run out last year when the 2nd District Court of Appeal made a final ruling in Schiavo’s favor and the Florida Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

In October, Terri suffered six days without food and water before state lawmakers passed “Terri’s Law,” and the governor ordered her feeding tube reinserted. Bush’s action was immediately challenged by Schiavo and his attorney, with the American Civil Liberties Union jumping in on Schiavo’s side as co-plaintiff.

In May, the appeal court granted a motion by Schiavo and Felos and sent the case directly to the Florida Supreme Court, agreeing with Felos that the ruling was a matter of great public importance and deserved immediate attention.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed to take the case. Oral arguments are scheduled for Aug. 31.

Information, including court documents, are posted on the Schindler family website.

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Read WorldNetDaily’s unparalleled, in-depth coverage of the fight to save Terri Schindler-Schiavo.