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A Florida Judge Orders Terri Schiavo’s Feeding Tube Removed

March 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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PEOPLE PRAYING: For thine is the kingdom and the power…

KWAME HOLMAN: Advocates for keeping brain-damaged Terri Schiavo alive relied on prayer as they kept vigil outside her Florida hospice this morning. Meanwhile, doctors inside prepared to remove her feeding tube at the court-approved time of 1 PM.

REP. TOM DeLAY: Terri Schiavo is alive. She is not just “barely alive.” She is not “being kept alive.” She is as alive as you and I. And as such, we have a moral obligation to protect and defend her from the fate premeditated by the Florida courts.

KWAME HOLMAN: They issued subpoenas to Schiavo’s doctors, to the hospice administrator, to her husband and to Schiavo herself. The subpoenas were signed by Tom Davis of Virginia, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Our goal in issuing these subpoenas is to conduct this investigation before it’s too late and the evidence is destroyed, period.

KWAME HOLMAN: Seven minutes before the 1 PM deadline, a Florida judge responded, delaying removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube until the presiding judge in the case, Pinellas County Circuit Judge George Greer, could sort through the legal disputes.

REP. TOM Delay: It’s not any one of us to decide whether she should live or die. She has constitutional rights to live.

KWAME HOLMAN: But 45 minutes later, Judge Greer again ruled Schiavo’s feeding tube could be disconnected, saying: “I have had no cogent reason why the Congressional Committee should intervene.” Greer added that the last-minute action by Congress does not invalidate years of court rulings.

Sometime later this afternoon, her sister reported Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube had been removed. Terry Schiavo has been fed and hydrated through a tube since suffering an incapacitating heart attack in 1990. Her husband Michael contends she would not have wanted to be kept alive in what doctors describe as a persistent vegetative state. Schiavo’s parents say their daughter responds to them and her condition could improve with rehabilitation.

Over the years of legal battles between the family members, Schiavo’s feeding tube had been removed twice before, only to be reinserted. Also this week, House Republican leaders took other measures aimed at keeping Schiavo alive. They pushed through a bill that would allow federal courts to review a case like hers. But last night in the Senate, several Democrats blocked quick action on the House bill, preventing it from being passed before members left town for a two week recess.

SEN. RON WYDEN: I’m particularly troubled at the prospect of setting a precedent that is going to have the Congress in effect playing medical czar in case after case because colleagues, there will be thousands of cases just like this.

KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, congressional Republicans plan to work through the weekend on legislation that might keep Terri Schiavo alive.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez takes it from there.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Terri Schiavo and her legal and medical situation, we turn to: Congressman Dave Weldon of Florida — a medical doctor, Congressman Weldon co-sponsored legislation that would allow Terri Schiavo’s case to be heard in a federal court; and Bill Allen, an associate professor of ethics at the University of Florida Medical School; he’s director of the school’s program in bioethics, law and medical professionalism.

Congressman Weldon, what was your reaction to the news that, just before 2 o’clock, Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed?

REP. DAVE WELDON: I think Judge Greer is in contempt of Congress. I’m not sure of that, but I believe that is the case. We have a bill that would allow the referral of the case to a federal court, and I believe Terry Schiavo deserves at least the same review of her rights to protect her rights that Scott Peterson is now going to get and the Senate had a slightly different bill. We were trying to work through our differences. Obviously, Judge Greer does not want Terri to have her case reviewed to make sure her constitutional rights were properly respected.

RAY SUAREZ: And Professor Allen, what was your response to the news?

BILL ALLEN: Well, I was delighted to see that perhaps there will be a sense of finality to this case after seven years of litigation. Ms. Schiavo’s rights and due process have been litigated over and over in the Florida courts and been before the Florida Supreme Court at least three times and the U.S. Supreme Court at least three times as well as the appellate courts up and down many times.

There’s never been a case that’s litigated this much. So it’s not as if she didn’t have her rights adjudicated by a court. And the courts found in every case that her wishes were not to be kept alive like this and found in every case that she’s in a persistent vegetative state and incapable of awareness or responsiveness based on expert testimony by leading neurologists.

RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Weldon, there was furious lead legal activity up until the last minute. The House of Representative’s efforts to intervene in Florida were rebuffed. Legally, what’s your next move?

REP. DAVE WELDON: Well, I just got off the phone with the majority leader and there are lawyers trying to go to federal court to enable the feeding tube to be put back in so this case can be properly reviewed. There are a number of features of this case that are distinctly unusual.

The first being you have a court order from a judge to withdraw food and water over and above the objections of the mother and father, brother and sister, a husband who has a common-law wife with children, who will inherit the balance of her medical malpractice settlement, and then you have a neurologist, a Dr. Cranford who is, as I understand it, a right-to-die expert and who testifies in a lot of these right-to-die cases — who I believe perjured himself.

He testified in this case; she was in a persistent vegetative state and she’s not in a persistent vegetative state. You look at the videos of her. She follows commands; she smiles. This is not a persistent vegetative state; and you can have all kinds of legal experts trying to claim that she is in that, but you described her correctly in the run-up on this program, of this story, that she’s brain damaged. She is brain damaged, and I think it’s fully appropriate for there to be one final federal review.

It’s unprecedented for a state court judge to order from the bench the withdrawal of food and water. That’s never been done before and so I think it’s very appropriate for us to make sure that her constitutional rights were protected.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Allen, is that right? Is it unprecedented or was it a situation created by this unusual legal path to Judge Greer’s chambers?

BILL ALLEN: Well, it’s more the latter than the former. This has happened many times not only in Florida but around the nation. In 1990, the Florida Supreme Court found in the case of Estelle Browning who was in a persistent vegetative state that she had the right to have treatment refused and withdrawn; and it was withdrawn. It was the same attorney, George Felos, that’s the attorney for Michael Schiavo.

So this law has been well sold in Florida and Florida statute allows this. It allows people to testify as to what the patient’s wishes were when they were capacitated; and the courts found that to be the case with Ms. Schiavo; that she had testified to meet their burden of clear and convincing evidence.

REP. DAVE WELDON: Can I comment on that?

RAY SUAREZ: Just a moment, Congressman. And, Professor Allen, Congressman Weldon brought up the fact that Terri Schiavo’s parents have objected all along. Is that legally relevant in Florida?

BILL ALLEN: It could be relevant if the court finds they have better evidence than the husband who comes in line before them as a decision maker in Florida statute. But the courts have never found that they had good evidence of what she wanted; and they found that not only Michael Schiavo but other people heard her make these claims.

And in terms of the persistent vegetative state, you can’t tell from a videotape; even a physician can’t watch a short snippet of videotape and make this diagnosis. The leading neurologists have examined her personally and they’ve concluded that she is in a persistent vegetative state.

REP. DAVE WELDON: Well I have spoken to a neurologist who examined her two years ago and totally disagreed with that conclusion. And I asked to get in and examine her. I am a physician. I practiced medicine for 15 years before I was elected to the House and I took care of a lot of cases like this.

And one of the things that has really bothered me about this case, when I was dealing with situations like this and a brain injury would occur, the family would always come forward immediately and say “Grandma or Uncle Joe said he did not want heroic life preserving measures, life support.” It would come out immediately.

And the facts in this case, the way they were presented to me, were that she was injured in 1990, she suffered a second injury in 1993 and then it was not until the husband had retained this right-to-die attorney that supposedly this testimony came forward that she had expressed no heroic measures be done if she were in this condition. The original guardian in this case had found that testimony to be not credible. And I think anybody who would bring forward that information after a seven-year pause needs to seriously be questioned, especially if they now have entered in a common-law marriage with another woman.

I mean, the right thing for this husband to do would be to divorce her, turn over the settlement to the parents, and they wouldn’t be dragging us through all of this. And to me, it all is sufficiently suspicious that to at least allow the same level of federal review, you know, we’re using the civil rights law called the Removal Act in the House version of this bill which was to protect people’s civil rights during, you know, the period of the civil rights movement in the United States.

I think it was a very plausible legal approach for us and ultimately the federal court could conclude that the state court had acted appropriately in this. But I was just not comfortable when you looked at all the circumstances of this and, yes, when I as a physician when I viewed the video footage the mother leaning forward and this woman, Terri Schiavo developing a look of recognition on her face and smiling and then trying to vocalize, that to me clinically is not a persistent vegetative state and that in and of itself I felt warranted a federal review.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Allen, how do you respond?

BILL ALLEN: Well, the Second District Court of Appeal in the Florida state system reviewed four hours of videotapes with experts and they found that those motions were random and were not responsive to stimuli. The videotape that most people have seen on television or on the Web site is a short snippet where it appears to be that way, but it’s only coincidence.

If you look at a long period of time, those are random reflex actions because the part of her brain — and I’ve seen the CAT scan, although I’m not an expert but experts tell me on the basis of the Cat scan– that her cerebral cortex has deteriorated and therefore the part of her that would be required to be aware or to have responses as are being claimed is just not intact enough to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: And the law in Florida says that persistent vegetative state is incapable of emotion, memory, or thought. Congressman Weldon, is that definition sufficient and is that something that we can really fight about at this late date when the feeding tube’s already been removed?

REP. DAVE WELDON: Well, I think you showed some video footage of what appeared to be Terri Schiavo smiling. I don’t know what kind of a state she’s in right at this moment, but based on that, what you just described, it causes me to question whether it comports with Florida law.

But, you know, the real issue here is not whether it comports with Florida law or not; it’s really whether it’s right or wrong. And sometimes laws are wrong. We had a lot of laws in the past in states like Florida that were really wrong. I mean, we want to do what is right and that’s all the people in the House and the Senate…you know, the Senate and the House have both passed a bill on this which tells me that both Republicans and Democrats in both bodies have some serious concerns about this case and the way it was handled. And what the judge did today I believe was in contempt of Congress.

And then he has a quote, a statement when he went on to make some derogatory comments about us going on vacation. You know, you’ve got the majority leader, a whole bunch of members of Congress have been there all day today. They’re going to be in there all day tomorrow working on this case and then he makes a statement like that. I believe that was very inappropriate and it shows a level of disregard for just the whole legislative process.

RAY SUAREZ: Congressman, I’m going to have to stop you there. Congressman Weldon from Florida, and Professor Allen, also joining us from Florida, gentlemen thanks.