TOPICS > Politics

Terri Schiavo Dies After 13 Days off Feeding Tube

March 31, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Word that Terri Schiavo had died at her Pinellas Park hospice came shortly after nine this morning. George Felos, the attorney for Schiavo’s husband, Michael, was in the room. He spoke to reporters this afternoon.

GEORGE FELOS: Her husband was present by her bed, cradling her. His brother, Brian, was there. I was there, along with attorney (Deborah) Bushnell. And many workers and caregivers from hospice of the Florida Sun Coast were there as well. Mrs. Schiavo died a calm, peaceful and gentle death.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even after the 41- year-old Schiavo died, demonstrators outside the hospice kept up their vigil. On opposite sides for years in the courts over her care, Michael Schiavo and Terri Schiavo’s family, the Schindlers, were unable to reconcile in her final moments. Father Frank Pavone, an advisor to the Schindler family, had this to say:

FATHER FRANK PAVONE: Unfortunately, just ten or so minutes before she died we were told we that had to leave the room because there would be an assessment of her condition, and then a visitation by Michael. Bobby Schindler, her brother, said, “We want to be in the room when she dies.” Michael Schiavo said, “No, you cannot.” And so his heartless cruelty continues until this very last moment.

KWAME HOLMAN: Attorney Felos disputed that, saying the Schindlers had spent nearly two hours in the room before medical officials asked them to leave.

GEORGE FELOS: We were told by the hospice administrator that they requested the visitors, the Schindlers and Father Pavone, to please leave the room because the nurses – the hospice personnel needed to do an assessment.

At that time, the hospice administrator said that Bobby Schindler was resistant to leaving the room, and got into an argument or dispute with a law enforcement official and suggested that he wanted to remain in the room with Mr. Schiavo and a police officer.

I want to reemphasize again, Mr. Schiavo’s overriding concern was Mrs. Schiavo has a right and had a right to die with dignity and die in peace. She had a right to have her last and final moments on this earth be experienced by a spirit of love and not of acrimony.

FATHER FRANK PAVONE: This is not only a death with all the sadness that brings, this is a killing. And for that we not only grieve that Terri has passed, but we grieve that our nation has allowed such an atrocity as this and we pray that it will never happen again.

KWAME HOLMAN: In Washington, President Bush offered condolences to both families.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life, where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others.

The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life.

KWAME HOLMAN: Terri Schiavo’s body was removed from the hospice today for an autopsy. There was no word on when her funeral would take place, but her husband’s attorney said her body would be cremated.

JIM LEHRER: And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: To further explore some of the issues raised by the life and death of Terri Schiavo, we turn to: Barbara Coombs Lee, co-president of Compassion and Choices, an organization that supports assisted suicide and patients’ rights; Alan Wolfe, a political scientist and director of Boston College’s Center for Religion and American Public Life; Stephen Drake, research analyst for Not Dead Yet, a disability rights organization; and Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life — he’s also the editor-in-chief of the institute’s monthly journal, First Things.

Welcome to all of you. I’d like to go around to all of you, starting with you, Barbara Coombs Lee, and ask what should Americans take from the life and death of Terri Schiavo?

BARBARA COOMBS LEE: It seems to me that what Americans have taken from the life and death of Terri Schiavo is that they absolutely must make their own desires known. I think people have been shocked at how out of control and at the amount of acrimony and dispute.

People all over the country are saying oh my goodness, if I don’t make my wishes perfectly known, people might argue about them when I can’t speak for myself. And other people, perfect strangers, might make decisions on my behalf, and that is people’s worst nightmare. So they are rushing to find ways to document their wishes and make sure that they are honored.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stephen Drake, what do you take from this?

STEPHEN DRAKE: Well, I think that people hopefully know they have to learn more about what’s been happening in various states about how people’s lives are ended these days — that people are running under assumptions that things are the same way they were twenty or thirty years ago when there was a presumption when people had chronic conditions and needing some kind of support that you would do everything to support a person’s life.

In fact, that kind of presumption is shifting, and increasingly people with intellectual disabilities, Alzheimer’s, mental retardation, brain injury, are having their lives cut short, sometimes with express wishes, sometimes without, through the withholding of things as simple as feeding tubes.

And some people, I think it was a surprise from the Terri Schiavo case to learn that feeding tubes were regarded as medical treatment. I mean, it wasn’t a surprise to anybody who’s been following and is familiar with the laws, but for a lot people this was their first encounter with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Father Neuhaus, you have written widely on the nexus of faith in the public arena, in the public square as you’ve called it. What do you take from the Terri Schiavo?

FATHER RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: I think the brief response has to be one of deep sadness, that an innocent woman has been put to death and to pray that she will rest in peace and be welcomed to glory.

Look the main thing is not to change the subject on this, and the subject is a moral question, and inescapably moral question — before it’s a political question, a legal question or medical question; it’s a moral question. And the question is who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility? Or to put it differently, who is our neighbor and what do we owe our neighbor?

And the moral principle is that it is always wrong to directly intend to take an innocent human life. What we have to hope will come out of this is a national discussion, if one can still use that word, a concentrated discussion on this question of who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility and to understand that people are in positions of radical dependency upon others, upon others who view them as their neighbors.

We come into life at the entrance gates of life in a circumstance of radical dependency upon others. Most of us will end our lives in a circumstance of radical dependency upon others, and many people along the way of life, especially the radically handicapped and disabled — and one of the most hopeful things about the future of this important moral discussion, which has political implications no doubt, one of the most hopeful things has been the rallying of the disability community to Terri Schiavo because people are able to see not simply that she is a neighbor, not simply that she it’s in some sense, as John Dunn says, a piece of the main, but they see that the bell tolls also for others who are not able to assert their rights.

Here is the lethal logic that is coming to dominate also much of legal and medical practice, and that is that people have no rights if they are not able to assert their rights; this is contrary to the foundational convictions of the American experiment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Wolfe, do you agree that Americans saw this first and foremost as a moral issue, as Father Neuhaus just put it?

ALAN WOLFE: I would say that the basic lesson can really be summarized in five words. Don’t politicize life and death. You know, Jeffrey, we talk about life, but there’s really no such thing as life in the abstract. There are only lives, real human lives, sons and daughters and fathers and wives, and husbands and mothers. And I think what the American people saw here was a kind of a national seminar, Father Neuhaus asked for a national discussion, we’ve already had one.

We’ve had a national discussion that’s revealed to us how complicated it is, these matters of life and death. And I think what we’ve come away from it is that every person who faces a situation like this is tortured, is serious, is trying to do the right thing. The notion that politicians should poke their noses into this is frankly grotesque. And the American people have discovered those grotesque reasons; they’re repelled by them and I think they’re right to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Wolfe, many of our institutions got involved here, you just referred to the politicians, the courts were in it, health providers, the media. How did our institutions rise or fall in this situation?

ALAN WOLFE: Our political institutions especially the Congress fell, and fell dramatically. I’ve never seen such demagoguery run amok as the Congress demonstrated by its efforts to politicize this case as well as by the decision of President Bush to make this the highly public flight to Washington to sign a bill that he could have signed in Texas; a decision so grotesque that even the president has acknowledged that by back tracking completely from the case once he saw that its political advantages were not as he expected.

On the other hand, we’ve seen with remarkable nobility what an independent judiciary looks like, what it means for judges to uphold the law, to remind us that we’re a government of laws and not of men. Judge Greer acted out of tremendous conviction, I think he’s one of the heroes of this case, he refused to be buckled. Judge Birch in the federal district court in Atlanta, a conservative Republican of the deepest conservative credentials, had to remind Congress that we have separation of powers in this country. We’ve seen the judiciary at its best, Congress at its worst.

JEFFREY BROWN: Father Neuhaus, how do you see our federal institutions?

FATHER RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: Well, I’m very sad that Professor Wolfe has so politicized this thing and all of his remarks about not politicizing it; he has of course made a number of political pronouncements.

Look, this is not a partisan political issue. It’s an issue for the whole society. It’s a question of whether we believe that people who do not have the capacity to assert their rights and to defend themselves are in fact vulnerable to the decision of the powerful and of the healthy to be eliminated. Go through the nursing homes of America, as I’m sure many of our viewers have, and there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, who by usual criteria of usefulness, of utility, are of no use, are not capable of asserting their rights, are completely dependent.

What the question is, is not judicial proceedings, not the question of political partisanship. The question is whether we have the capacity as a nation and the compassion as a nation and the intelligence as a nation to intelligently engage the question, who is my neighbor? And the answer to the question, as you remember from the biblical parable, is to whom are you a neighbor? It’s a question not of procedures, but of duties.

And it’s a question upon which the very character of the American experiment rests; it is a wonderful thing out of this sadness, there is something beautiful that ought not to be overlooked and that is that there is something like an American moral character, this is not the Netherlands, it’s not Switzerland. It’s not a place where the useless and those who others deem to be unworthy of life are eliminated. This is a nation, which is capable of engaging the great moral question, with the political and legal implications of that question, posed by the tragedy of the unjust taking of the life of Terri Schiavo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Barbara Coombs Lee, you have to deal with this on the front lines, you see cases like this, and I would imagine that with an aging population with changing in technology, we will see much more of this. How do you respond to what Father Neuhaus just said about the dialogue going forward?

BARBARA COOMBS LEE: I think what we’ve seen is a classic clash between two ethical principles of beneficence: that is doing what we think is best for another person, and autonomy, that is doing what the person would want to do for themselves if they could. And when those two ethical principles clash, I always come down on the side of autonomy.

The question is not what would we want for Terri Schiavo. The question is what would Terri Schiavo want for herself if she could magically awaken and look at her situation and analyze the medical evidence and see that she was enormously unlikely to ever awaken and ever be, have a sentient life, what would she want. That is really the question.

FATHER RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: How do you know the answer to that with enough certainty?

BARBARA COOMBS LEE: I don’t, I don’t presume –

FATHER RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: That you would take her life or approve of someone taking her life.

BARBARA COOMBS LEE: That’s where we differ, father. You and I — I do not presume — to know what she would want. But I’m saying that we have systems in this country that do examine the evidence and make the very best determination of what she would want.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me bring Stephen Drake –

STEPHEN DRAKE: I would appreciate that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Drake, go ahead.

STEPHEN DRAKE: I would appreciate that this idea of somehow exercising autonomy for somebody you say can no longer exercise it, is a fiction. There are contested stories in this specific woman’s case about what she said in casual conversation.

And there are two twin things going on here. Even if, you know, I mean, both things may be true, the statement she made before her injury may have been true about feeling like people should have their life supported or the feeling that she wouldn’t be on life support. Both of those things she might have said in casual conversation. Should a life hinge on those?

The other twin thing is once somebody is incompetent and not able to communicate their wishes, if they’re not suffering, if they’re not indicating that this life is horrible for them, are we going to go on what we think they would have wanted before they became incapacitated or are we going to go on how they seem to be now in terms of are they able to, you know, is there suffering going on? Is there some reason that we need to make sure that we don’t prolong needless suffering?

There was nothing like that claimed with Terri Schiavo. I mean, there’s so many things that interact with this. I mean, this is the thing that was being justified in court. And, you know, I kind of roll my eyes when the conservatives are, who were part of the coalition, trying to save Terri Schiavo talked to activist judges and that, you know, and then other people who talked about having faith in the court system. I live in Illinois where 17 innocent people ended up on Death Row. We don’t have a lot faith in the court system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Wolfe, I want to bring you back in. To the extent that this becomes a public issue, some of our other guests are talking about the autonomy versus the public equation, do you see some way to resolve it?

ALAN WOLFE: I hope that from this experience we have a national discussion, in Congress and in other institutions about all the issues that were raised here. And I certainly hope that that discussion is guided not by abstractions, not by protesters chanting slogans about the right to life or about characterizing their opponents as standing for culture of death, but that we have an honest and open discussion about all the issues that the Terri Schiavo case raised and that we proceed in a mature and responsible manner to address them.

I wonder if we’ll actually do that though because we’ve seen so much rushing in to take advantage of this poor woman’s situation. Once it leaves the headlines who knows if Congress will pay attention to it and who knows if the Republicans in Congress who found themselves hoping for great political advantage out of this, but now find them facing all kinds of difficulties will even want to go back to it or touch it with a ten-foot pole. But I hope we do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ms. Coombs Lee, briefly, do you think that dialogue will continue and move forward?

BARBARA COOMBS LEE: Yes, I think it will. And whether or not our culture and Congress can be mature and responsible, I see people stepping up and wanting to be mature and responsible for their own sake. I agree with Father Neuhaus, it is a moral question.

It is an intensely personal, private, intimate, moral question where each person must wrestle with their own conscience and determine according to their own beliefs and values and faith what would be the best thing for them, and make sure that everyone in their surroundings, particularly the relatives, their loved ones who might be estranged, understand what they want so that there’s no dispute when they can’t speak for themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ms. Coombs Lee and gentlemen, thank you all very much.