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Congress, President Intervene in Schiavo Case

On Sunday the Senate passed a bill that gives a federal judge the ability to review a Florida state court’s ruling that agreed with Terri Schiavo’s husband who contends her wish would be to have a life-sustaining feeding tube removed rather than living on in a severely incapacitated state. Terri Schiavo’s parents vehemently disagree with the ruling, which they say will lead to a cruel death of starvation and dehydration.

The Senate passed the bill by a voice vote with no objections. The House debated the bill late into the evening Sunday and passed it 203 to 58 shortly before 1 a.m. on Monday. The yes vote included 156 Republicans and 47 Democrats, while 53 Democrats and 5 Republicans voted no. President Bush returned home early from his Texas ranch in order to sign the bill early Monday morning.

“Today, I signed into law a bill that will allow federal courts to hear a claim by or on behalf of Terri Schiavo for violation of her rights relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids, or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life,” the president said in a statement. “In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life. This presumption is especially critical for those like Terri Schiavo who live at the mercy of others.”

Opponents of the bill said Congress was unconstitutionally overstepping its authority and setting a dangerous precedent by using federal legislation to intervene in the case of one person.

“Congressional leaders have no business substituting their judgment for that of multiple state courts that have extensively considered the issues in this intensely personal family matter,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was traveling in the Middle East, said in a statement. “The actions of the majority in attempting to pass constitutionally dubious legislation are highly irregular and an improper use of legislative authority.”

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said Congress could be besieged by requests from individual citizens.

“Every aggrieved party in any similar litigation now will go to Congress, come to Congress and ask us to make a series of decisions. This is a terribly difficult decision which we are, institutionally, totally incompetent to make,” Frank said.

Congressional Republican leaders, however, said they have a responsibility to protect the rights of citizens.

“We, as Congress, have every right to make sure that the constitutional rights of Terri Schiavo are protected, and that’s what we’re doing,” House Majority Leader Tom Delay said.

The Schiavo case has drawn national media attention and the focus of both “right to life” and “right to die” advocacy groups.

The original legal dispute pits Terri Schiavo’s husband Michael Schiavo against her parents and siblings in a bitter, years-long legal battle.

Terri Schiavo’s heart failed in 1990 leaving her brain damaged and unable to speak or care for herself. The legal dispute over Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube last gained national attention in 2003, when a Florida state appeals court upheld an original circuit court ruling that said the feeding tube should be removed. The Florida legislature then passed a bill known as “Terri’s Law” giving Gov. Jeb Bush the right to intervene. The governor ordered the feeding tube to be reinserted. The Florida Supreme Court then ruled that “Terri’s Law” was unconstitutional, sending the case back to the state circuit court.

In February 2005, the Florida circuit court reiterated its original ruling in favor of Schiavo’s husband, Michael Schiavo, who asserts that it was his wife’s wish not to be kept alive if severely incapacitated. Doctors appointed by the Florida courts to examine Terri Schiavo have said she is in a “persistent vegetative state” with little or no chance for recovery. Other doctors have disputed that diagnosis.

“Terri has been through years and years of rehabilitation,” Michael Schiavo said in October 2003. “There’s no more improvement for Terry.”

Florida Circuit Court Judge George Greer ordered Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube removed on March 18.

Terri Schiavo’s parents and siblings contend the removal of her feeding tube is forced dehydration and starvation. They assert Terri Schiavo has some awareness and responds to them when they visit her, which gives them hope for some recovery. They also argue that Terri never indicated wishes in case of severe brain damage or incapacitation.

“Terri hasn’t had any chance to recover from her injury or whatever happened to her that night,” said Terri Schiavo’s sister, Suzanne Carr in 2003. “And we believe she would want a chance at that. We don’t believe Terri had any wishes. We think she would never want to die a starvation death.”

Terri’s siblings and parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have said Michael Schiavo should divorce Terri and allow them to care for her. They point to Michael Schiavo’s ten year relationship with another woman, with whom he has two children, as evidence he has “abandoned” his wife.

Michael Schiavo has said his relationship is not improper and that his critics are using Terri’s case for political purposes.

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