Terri Schiavo died at 9:05 a.m. at the hospice where she lay for years while her husband and her parents fought over her in the nation's longest, most bitter right-to-die dispute. She was 41.
PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged woman who spent 15 years connected to a feeding tube in an epic legal and medical battle that went all the way to the White House and Congress, died today, 13 days after the tube was removed. She was 41.
Schiavo died about 9 a.m. at the Pinellas Park hospice where she lay for years while her husband and her parents fought over her in what was easily the longest, most bitter — and most heavily litigated — right-to-die dispute in U.S. history.
Michael Schiavo was at his wife’s bedside, cradling her, when she died a “calm, peaceful and gentle” death, a stuffed animal under her arm, and flowers arranged around the room, said his attorney, George Felos. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, were not at the hospice at the time, he said.
“Mr. Schiavo’s overriding concern here was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity,” Felos said. “This death was not for the siblings, and not for the spouse and not for the parents. This was for Terri.”
The feud between the parents and their son-in-law continued even after her death: The Schindlers’ advisers complained that Schiavo’s brother and sister had been at her bedside a few minutes before the end came, but were not there at the moment of her death because Michael Schiavo would not let them in the room.
“And so his heartless cruelty continues until this very last moment,” said the Rev. Frank Pavone, a Roman Catholic priest. He added: “This is not only a death, with all the sadness that brings, but 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.”
Felos disputed the Schindler family’s account. He said that Terri Schiavo’s siblings had been asked to leave the room so that the hospice staff could examine her, and the brother started arguing with a law enforcement official. Michael Schiavo feared a “potentially explosive” situation and would not allow the brother in the room, because he wanted his wife’s death to take place in a calm and peaceful surroundings, Felos said.
“She’s got all of her dignity back. She’s now in heaven, she’s now with God, and she’s walking with grace,” Michael Schiavo’s brother, Scott Schiavo, said at his Levittown, Pa., home.
Outside the hospice, a small group of activists sang hymns, raising their hands to the sky and closing their eyes. After the tube that supplied a nutrient solution was disconnected, protesters had streamed into Pinellas Park to keep vigil outside her hospice, with many arrested as they tried to bring her food and water.
Dawn Kozsey, 47, a musician who was among those outside Schiavo’s hospice, wept. “Words cannot express the rage I feel,” she said. “Is my heart broken for this? Yes.”
Schiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990 after her heart stopped because of a chemical imbalance that was believed to have been brought on by an eating disorder. Court-appointed doctors ruled she was in a persistent vegetative state, with no real consciousness or chance of recovery.
She left no written instructions, but her husband argued that his wife told him long ago she would not want to be kept alive artificially. His in-laws disputed that, saying that would have gone against her Roman Catholic faith, and they contended she could get better with treatment. They said she laughed, cried, responded to them and tried to talk.
Over and over, Pinellas County Circuit Judge George W. Greer said that Michael Schiavo had convinced him that Terri Schiavo would not have wanted to be kept alive under such conditions. The feeding tube was removed with the judge’s approval March 18 — the third time food and water were cut off during the seven-year legal battle.
Florida lawmakers, Congress, President Bush and his brother Gov. Jeb Bush tried to intervene on behalf of her parents, but state and federal courts at all levels repeatedly ruled in favor of her husband.
The case focused national attention on living wills, prompting perhaps thousands of Americans to discuss their end-of-life wishes with their loved ones and put their instructions in writing. The dispute also stirred a furious debate over the proper role of government in such life-and-death decisions. And it led to allegations that Republicans in Congress were pandering to the religious right and violating their own political principles of limited government and states’ rights.
In Washington, the president said he was saddened by the death.
“The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak,” Bush said. “In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in favor of life.”
In Rome, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Vatican’s office for sainthood, called the removal of the feeding tube “an attack against God.”
An autopsy is planned, with both sides hoping it will shed more light on the extent of her brain injuries and whether she was abused by her husband, as the Schindlers have argued. In what was the source of yet another dispute between the husband and his in-laws, Michael Schiavo will get custody of the body and plans to have her cremated and bury the ashes in the Schiavo family plot in Pennsylvania.
A funeral Mass, sought by the Schindlers, was tentatively scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday.
Gov. Jeb Bush said that millions of people around the world will be “deeply grieved” by her death but that the debate over her fate could help others grapple with end-of-life issues.
“After an extraordinarily difficult and tragic journey, Terri Schiavo is at rest,” he said. “I remain convinced, however, that Terri’s death is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society. For that, we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us.”
Although several right-to-die cases have been fought in the courts across the nation in recent years, none had been this public, drawn-out and bitter.
Six times, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. As Schiavo’s life ebbed away earlier this month, Congress rushed through a bill to allow the federal courts to take up the case. President Bush signed it March 21. But the federal courts refused to intervene.
Described by her family as a shy woman who loved animals, music and basketball, Terri Schindler grew up in Pennsylvania and battled a weight problem in her youth.
“And then when she lost all the weight, she really became quite beautiful on the outside as well. What was inside she allowed to shine out at that point,” a friend, Diane Meyer, said in 2003.
She met Michael Schiavo — pronounced SHY-voh — at Bucks County Community College near Philadelphia in 1982. They wed two years later. After they moved to Florida, she worked in an insurance agency.
But recurring battles with weight led to the eating disorder that was blamed for her collapse at 26. Doctors said she suffered severe brain damage when her heart stopped beating because of a potassium imbalance. Her brain was deprived of oxygen for 10 minutes before she was revived, doctors estimated.
Because Terri Schiavo did not leave written wishes on her care, Florida law gave preference to Michael Schiavo over her parents. But the law also recognizes parents as having crucial opinions in the care of an incapacitated person.
A court-appointed physician testified her brain damage was so severe that there was no hope she would ever have any cognitive abilities.
Still, her parents, who visited her nearly every day, reported their daughter responded to their voices. Video showing the dark-haired woman appearing to interact with her family was televised nationally. But the court-appointed doctor said the noises and facial expressions were reflexes.
Both sides accused each other of being motivated by greed over a $1 million medical malpractice award from doctors who failed to diagnose the chemical imbalance.
However, that money, which Michael Schiavo received in 1993, has all but evaporated, spent on his wife’s care and the court fight. Just $40,000 to $50,000 remained as of mid-March.
Michael Schiavo’s lawyers suggested the Schindlers wanted to get some of the money. And the Schindlers questioned their son-in-law’s sincerity, saying he never mentioned his wife’s wishes until winning the malpractice case.
The parents tried to have Michael Schiavo removed as his wife’s guardian because he lives with another woman and has two children with her. Michael Schiavo refused to divorce his wife, saying he feared the Schindlers would ignore her desire to die.
Schiavo lived in her brain-damaged state longer than two other young women whose cases brought right-to-die issues to the forefront of public attention.
Karen Quinlan lived for more than a decade in a vegetative state — brought on by alcohol and drugs in 1975 when she was 21; New Jersey courts let her parents take her off a respirator a year after her injury. Nancy Cruzan, who was 25 when a 1983 car crash placed her in a vegetative state, lived nearly eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that her parents could withdraw her feeding tube.
Schiavo’s feeding tube was briefly removed in 2001. It was reinserted after two days when a court intervened. In October 2003, the tube was removed again, but Gov. Jeb Bush rushed Terri’s Law through the Legislature, allowing the state to have the feeding tube reinserted after six days. The Florida Supreme Court later struck down the law as unconstitutional interference in the judicial system by the executive branch.
Nearly two weeks ago, the tube was removed for a third and final time.