Who Has The Right To Die?

The day before Terri Schiavo's life descended into a private purgatory in 1990, she indulged in a guilty pleasure: an $80 visit to the hairdresser. When she told her husband, Michael, over the phone, he reacted angrily at the cost and the two traded bitter words, according to Jackie Rhodes, a friend of Schiavo's. Michael says he arrived at the couple's St. Petersburg, Fla., home late that night and stirred Terri awake to exchange a kiss. Hours later, he heard a thud. He ran into the hall and found her lying facedown, making a gurgling noise. "Terri, Terri," he said. "You OK?" She didn't reply. When the paramedics arrived, they said she had flatlined. "Why is this happening?" he asked hysterically. "Why isn't her heart beating?" Terri, then only 26, had suffered cardiac arrest because of a potassium imbalance (possibly related to an eating disorder). Though she was eventually resuscitated, she lapsed into what doctors diagnosed as a "persistent vegetative state"--not comatose, but so brain-damaged that she seemed robbed of cognitive ability.

Terri Schiavo remains in that penumbra today, unaware that her condition has ignited one of the most contentious right-to-die cases ever. For the past five years her husband has sought to have her feeding tube--the only thing that keeps her alive--disconnected, arguing that she would have preferred death to her current life. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have fought him relentlessly in the courts, insisting that she has flickers of consciousness and might eventually be rehabilitated. As the dispute has grown more venomous, it has bled into the public arena, drawing in religious conservatives on the side of the Schindlers and the ACLU on behalf of Michael. In the past two weeks, though, the ghastly, gut-wrenching spectacle has escalated even further. On Oct. 15, Terri's feeding tube was removed under court order for a second time. Then last week--in an unprecedented move--the Florida Legislature passed a law tailored to her case that authorized Gov. Jeb Bush to issue a one-time stay, which he promptly did. The tube was reinserted and Terri's fate once again was thrown into the courts. As judges attempt to untangle the thorny medical, ethical--and now constitutional--questions that swirl around her, the only certain outcome is that those closest to Terri will continue to tear one another apart.

How did it come to this? Michael met Terri at a Pennsylvania junior college in 1983. He began wooing her incessantly. Timid and insecure about her weight, Terri "had never had anyone pay that kind of attention to her," says her sister Suzanne Carr. The couple married a year later. "My sister loved his family," Carr recalls, and he had a "close relationship" with hers, Michael said in court testimony. In 1986, the two moved to Florida, where Terri's parents and siblings had settled. Eventually, though, Terri confided to her friend Rhodes that her marriage was strained. She complained that Michael was lazy and so controlling that he tracked the mileage on her new Toyota to ensure she didn't venture too far. A few weeks before her collapse, Terri broke down crying with her brother Bobby. "I wish that I had the guts to divorce Michael," she told him, according to an affidavit he signed, "because I cannot take being married to him anymore."

Still, after Terri's collapse, Michael devoted himself to her care. He moved into her parents' home, where Terri stayed for a spell, and the family "worked in harmony with Michael," says her father. Later, when Terri returned to a nursing home, Michael regularly drove the staff to tears with his exacting demands for Terri's treatment. One of her guardians ad litem (appointed by a court to represent the interests of the incompetent) noted in a report that although "Mr. Schiavo is a nursing home administrator's nightmare," Terri "gets care and attention... as a result of [his] advocacy." Michael even attended nursing school to better minister to her. When he and the family learned of an experimental procedure in California that involved stimulating the brain with electrodes, they raised the necessary money and flew Terri out. It was unsuccessful, but they were united in their determination to explore every possible treatment.

But then Michael started clashing with the Schindlers over money. He won a medical malpractice lawsuit in 1992 against Terri's gynecologist for failing to administer tests that might have detected her potassium imbalance. That award, combined with the settlement of a suit against another of her doctors, netted Terri $700,000, which was deposited in a trust fund, and $300,000 for Michael. In Terri's room on Valentine's Day in 1993, Michael argued with his in-laws over how to spend the cash in the fund, which he had sole access to as Terri's guardian. The Schindlers hoped to continue trying new rehab options--which Michael had assured them he'd pursue, they say--but now he resisted, contending that such efforts were futile. Tempers flared, the name-calling escalated, and both sides stormed out; it would be the last time they talked. As he later told Richard Pearse, another of Terri's guardians ad litem, Michael had lost hope for her recovery. But, says Pearse, "I had a great problem with the idea that Michael could... get the money and then basically change his position... I was rather struck by the coincidence of that."

Over time, Michael's relationship with the Schindlers became progressively more toxic. The family sued unsuccessfully to terminate his guardianship, which grants him authority over Terri's medical care. He, in turn, began wielding that authority in ways the family deemed tyrannical. In 1993, Michael testified, he followed a doctor's recommendation not to treat Terri for a bladder infection that could have killed her (a decision he later reversed) and to enter a "do not resuscitate" order. Later, the Schindlers say, Michael strictly guarded Terri's visits, permitting entry only to those he authorized and insisting that one of his representatives be present. (Michael requested limited visitation only after the Schindlers violated his trust by, for instance, videotaping Terri, responds one of his attorneys.) Michael also refused to divorce her, even though he had a new girlfriend. The family accused him of maintaining the marriage to inherit Terri's trust fund if she died. George Felos, one of Michael's attorneys, insists that Michael "will not receive one financial benefit from her death." In 1998, Michael infuriated the family yet again by petitioning a judge to have Terri's feeding tube removed. The Schindlers took him to court, forcing a trial that turned on a fundamental question: how to determine, in the absence of a living will, whether Terri wanted to persist in her current state or be allowed to die. On several occasions, Michael testified, Terri commented that she would never want to be kept alive "on anything artificial." Members of his family recounted similar anecdotes. According to the testimony of a childhood friend, however, Terri was disturbed by the high-profile case of Karen Ann Quinlan, whose parents gained permission to remove her respirator. "How did they know she would want this?" Terri allegedly said. "How did they know she wouldn't want to go on?" In the end, the judge sided with Michael, as have most courts. Terri's feeding tube was disconnected in 2001, only to be reinserted two days later, after her family presented new evidence to a different judge.

Battered by the earlier court rulings, the Schindlers appealed to public opinion. They posted videos online showing Terri seeming to respond to her mother's presence, her face flickering with glee. In others, she appears to follow the movements of a balloon. Doctors enlisted by her parents offer images like these as proof that Terri has flashes of awareness and could eventually recover. But most experts maintain that such hopes are grounded more in love than in medicine. Terri "does not exhibit any cognitive behavior," testified Victor Gambone, until recently her primary treating physician, or "any ability that I could perceive of her awareness of her environment." The videos have proved potent nonetheless, helping to prod Governor Bush and the legislature to step in.

Whether that intervention will withstand judicial scrutiny remains to be seen. This week the family will return to court to fight Michael's lawsuit contending that "Terri's Law" is unconstitutional, as the legal community widely believes. In a separate proceeding, a judge has asked both sides to agree on a new guardian ad litem to represent Terri; if they can't agree, the court will appoint one. Beyond that, the Advocacy Center for Persons With Disabilities announced last week that it would conduct an investigation into complaints of "possible neglect concerning Ms. Schiavo." Among other allegations, the Schindlers say they've unearthed a 1991 bone scan of Terri's that shows possible evidence of physical abuse by Michael. (Such charges "appear to be a desperation move," says one of his attorneys.) As Michael and Terri's 19th wedding anniversary, on Nov. 8, draws near, the hostility on both sides continues to rage. "If anything is undeniable in this case," wrote one judge along the way, "it is that [Terri] would never wish for this money to drive a wedge between the people she loves." Perhaps if she could speak, she'd say the same.