Schiavo case

Schiavo case, the legal battles over the guardianship and rights of Theresa Maria Schindler Schiavo (1963–2005). Terri Schiavo was incapacitated and hospitalized in 1990, after she collapsed when her heart stopped beating due to a potassium imbalance, and her brain suffered extensive damage due to lack of oxygen. In 1998 her husband and guardian, Michael Schiavo, petitioned a Florida court to remove her feeding tube, stating that she would not have wanted to live in a vegetative state. He was opposed by her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, who did not believe she was in such a state and disagreed with her husband's assertions concerning her wishes. They had become estranged from Michael Schiavo after he had sued and won a $1 million malpractice award (1992), and they had tried in 1993 to have him removed as Terri Schiavo's guardian.

In 2000 the judge ruled in favor of Michael Schiavo and the feed tubing was removed, but the Schindlers sued in another court and the judge there ordered the tube reinserted. In 2002 the original judge again ruled in favor of Michael Schiavo and, after a Florida appeals court upheld (2003) the ruling, the tube was removed. The Florida legislature, however, quickly passed a law allowing Gov. Jeb Bush to intervene, and he ordered the feeding resumed. The Florida supreme court ultimately ruled (2004) that “Terri's Law” was unconstitutional and violated Terri Schiavo's right to privacy, but Gov. Bush appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected his petition.

In 2005, after a Florida appeals court again refused to block the tube's removal, both Houses of the U.S. Congress attempt to block its removal using their subpoena power, a move regarded by most legal experts as overreaching or illegitimate, and the Florida judge rejected the move and ordered the tube removed. Congress then quickly passed a law calling for a federal district court in Florida to review the case to determine if Terri Schiavo's rights were being violated, but the federal judge in the case rejected the Schindlers' argument that her constitutional right to due process was being violated, a decision that was upheld on appeal. Terri Schiavo died on Mar. 31, 2005, less than two weeks after the feeding tube had been removed.

The case's generally straightforward original legal issues were obscured by the acrimony between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers, whose belief that their daughter was not in a vegetative state, despite what most doctors said, was fueled by her reaction to stimuli, a condition not inconsistent with a vegetative state; she also was capable of breathing on her own. The case gradually became a media circus, but also was an often emotional political cause for conservative, mostly Republican political leaders and for persons opposed to abortion and euthanasia. On the other hand, many Americans were disturbed by the injection of elected government officials into what they saw as a private family matter, however embittered and complicated, and most legal experts and ultimately the courts as well regarded the legislative interventions as unsound law.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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