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Lawmakers ready to save Schiavo

Key members of the Florida House and Senate reached a deal yesterday on a bill to prevent Terri Schiavo from being allowed to starve to death under a court order requested by her estranged husband.

For the second time in less than two years, the state lawmakers are prepared to intervene in the case of the brain-damaged woman, who requires a feeding tube to keep her alive.

The proposed legislation would prevent caretakers of a person in a “persistent vegetative state” from withholding food and water in the absence of a written directive.

In 2003, “Terri’s Law” enabled Gov. Jeb Bush to intervene the second time Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed. The law later was ruled unconstitutional, however, by the Florida Supreme Court, which said it violated the legal separation between the three branches of government.

Michael Schiavo won a court order in 2000 to have his wife’s feeding tube removed, claiming she was in a “persistent vegetative state” and had declared orally she wouldn’t want to live in such a condition.

Parents Robert and Mary Schindler, however, insist their daughter, while severely handicapped, is responsive and demonstrates a strong will to live. They have filed a flurry of motions to prevent removal of the feeding tube, scheduled for Friday, after 1 p.m.

The Florida bill is expected to come up for a vote Friday.

Terri Schiavo is not hooked up to any machines, but she requires the small feeding tube for nourishment and hydration. She collapsed under disputed circumstances Feb. 25, 1990, suffering severe brain damage when her heart stopped momentarily. Michael Schiavo attributes the collapse to an eating disorder, but the Schindlers strongly suspect he tried to strangle her.

The Schindlers have pleaded with Michael Schiavo to divorce their daughter, pointing out he has been living with another woman for 10 years, with whom he has two children.

Lawmakers said legal counsel for Gov. Jeb Bush helped shaped the new legislation, and they expect the governor to sign it, the Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of Florida-based Liberty Counsel, a public-interest law firm, said he was pleased the legislature is acting with deliberate speed.

“Terri Schiavo is only a few days away from being starved and dehydrated,” he said. “Death by dehydration and starvation is slow, painful, and inhumane. No parent should be forced to stand by helplessly and watch their child die of starvation.”

The bill would allow a guardian, in the absence of a written directive, to deny food and water if there was “clear and convincing evidence” the incapacitated person declared his or her wishes orally.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. David Simmons, R-Orlando, emphasized “clear and convincing” is a tough standard.

He told the Sun-Sentinel a casual conversation “sitting around the dinner table, that’s not going to rise to the level that will permit the denial of sustenance and hydration.”

Michael Schiavo says Terri made her wishes known in casual conversations.

Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, said the new legislation avoids the constitutional problems found in “Terri’s Law” — violation of separation of powers and that it was retroactive and narrowly applied to Schiavo.

But Michael Schiavo’s attorney, well-known “right-to-die” lawyer George Felos, predicted the Supreme Court will strike down this law as well.

“This is purely a knee-jerk response to the growing political clout of the far right, and it’s tragic, to say the least, that legislators don’t have any concern about the constitutionality of the acts they pass,” he told the Florida paper.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Congress, two lawmakers from Florida are pressing for federal legislation that would save Terri Schiavo’s life.

Sen. Mel Martinez and Rep. David Weldon say the Incapacitated Person’s Legal Protection Act will give Schiavo, and others in similar situations, the same constitutional protection of due process as death-row inmates.

Current law leaves the rights of disabled persons at the mercy of courts instead of the Constitution, the lawmakers argue.

The new measure would not apply to cases in which an advance medical directive is in effect.

Weldon’s bill, which has 110 colleagues signed on in support, will have a hearing tomorrow at the House Judiciary Committee.

Martinez is hoping for a Senate vote on similar legislation this week.

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.

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