Saturday, February 7, 2015

Remembering Jeb Bush's Role in the Terri Schiavo Case

With so much talk about Florida Governor Jeb Bush running for president and with the anniversary of Terri Schiavo's death approaching next month, I'm posting an excerpt from a talk I gave at Colgate University last year which outlines Bush's role in the case:

Like Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan, Schiavo was unconscious and had stopped breathing for more than four minutes, a duration of time that doctors roughly consider the window from within which patients may recover. Her husband had found her on the floor of their Florida home in February of 1990 and called 911. When paramedics arrived, she was resuscitated and rushed to a nearby hospital where eventually, she was given a feeding tube. For years Terri’s husband and her family, the Schindlers, attended her, hoping that therapy would restore consciousness. But ultimately, Michael accepted that his wife would not recover. Her family, Roman Catholics, did not. They became estranged when Michael sought to legally have Terri’s feeding tube removed.

Michael received permission from a district judge in 2001 to remove the tube after providing witnesses and evidence that she would not have wanted to be kept alive. It was removed, but two days later the Schindler’s appealed the decision, saying that “Terri was a devout Roman Catholic who would not wish to violate the Church's teachings on euthanasia by refusing nutrition and hydration.” The feeding tube was reinstated. Over the course of the next few years, the dramatic removal and reinsertion played out several times with the public, district judges, state and federal legislators, and activists of every stripe weighing in on the state of Schiavo’s life and health.

The Schindler’s recruited Randall Terry, an anti-abortion activist who had founded Operation Rescue and knew how to get publicity, to take up their cause. Randall Terry arranged vigils and protests outside the hospice where Terri Schiavo was a patient and put pressure on the Florida governor, Jeb Bush, an anti-abortion Republican. Writes Colby, the Cruzan’s lawyer, “In Tallahassee, the Florida state capital, email and phone calls began to pour in with messages from people pleading for Terri Schiavo’s life.” Later the governor said he received 160,000 messages. Governor Bush called a special legislative session the night of Sunday, October 19, 2003, and “Terri’s Law,” which overrode the courts and ordered the tube again be reinstated, was passed unanimously the following afternoon. Two hours later the hospice was served with an order to reinstate the tube. Terri Schiavo’s long-time doctor chose to resign rather than do so; another doctor at the facility performed the reinsertion. 

In 2004, the Florida Supreme Court overturned “Terri’s Law,” ruling it unconstitutional. Governor Bush tried to appeal but the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. A new date was set for final removal by the Florida District Judge George Greer: March 18 at 1 pm. With no remaining options, the Schindlers met with the governor and other important officials. They enlisted the support of both key anti-abortion legislators and an effort was headed by House Majority Leader Tom Delay to “pass a bill that would move the Schiavo case to federal courts.” Although most legislators had headed home for the Easter break, those who remained decided in the early morning hours of Friday, March 18 to issue subpoenas “to trigger federal protection for Terri Schiavo,” but one week later, Florida Judge Greer called a hearing to tell federal legislators they had no jurisdiction in the case. “My order will stand,” he told them. 

An hour later, Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was again removed. Legislators, writes Colby, called a “rare Saturday night session of the US Senate that was attended by only three senators, Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, Mel Martinez of Florida, and John Warner of Virginia. Senator Frist said, ‘Under the legislation we will soon consider, Terri Schiavo will have another chance.’” The federal law, titled “For the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo,” was brought before emergency sessions in both the house and senate the following day, Palm Sunday. The senate passed the bill, which became known as the Palm Sunday Compromise, unanimously -- but the house was blocked by eight Democrats who challenged it on weekend rules, so house leaders waited until after midnight to pass it. President George W. Bush, informed of the bill’s progress, curtailed his vacation and returned to Washington that day to sign it. 

In the US House Sunday night, Tom Delay stood to say, “A young woman in Florida is being dehydrated and starved to death. For 58 long hours her mouth has been parched and her hunger pains have been throbbing... She is alive. She is still one of us. And this cannot stand.” The bill was passed at 12:41 am and President Bush signed it into law at 1:11 am. 

But repeatedly, federal and Florida district judges refused to recognize the bill. New appeals were submitted and turned down. New bills, hastily written and frantically debated, failed to pass in Florida. Governor Bush threatened to use the Department of Child and Families to take custody of Schiavo by order. David Gibbs, the Schindler’s lawyer and President of the Christian Law Association called Michael Schiavo a “murderer.” More motions were submitted and denied. Protesters called hospice workers “Nazis,” “cowards” and “murderers.” At the Schindler’s request Reverend Jesse Jackson flew to Florida. Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life and President of the National Pro-Life Religious Council accompanied Terri’s siblings on their last visit to their sister’s room. Terri Schiavo died on March 31st, 13 days after her feeding tube was removed.