Who speaks for Terri Schiavo?
Appeals are under way after a judge refused early Tuesday to reinstall a feeding tube, in a case with broad legal implications.
WASHINGTON — Boiled down to its essence, the ongoing legal dispute over a severely brain-damaged Florida woman might well have been filed in court under the label Theresa Marie Schiavo v. Theresa Marie Schiavo.
Both sides in the life-or-death drama unfolding in a Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice and federal courtrooms are claiming to be acting in what they believe to be Terri Schiavo's best interests.
Yet only one of those parties can be right. The other, while acting with the best intentions, is misrepresenting Ms. Schiavo.
It is this aspect of attempting to know the unknowable - what Schiavo herself would want in this instance - that has perplexed much of the nation in water-cooler debates and kitchen-table discussions.
The debate is more than simply right-to-life versus right-to-die. Legal analysts say Schiavo's struggle is playing out along the same cultural and ideological fault lines that split the nation over abortion, stem-cell research, and evolution.
To some it comes down to a belief in miracles and the miracle of life. To others it is the imagined horror of life in a body that will not respond to thought.
"This case is a piece of the continuing conflict between science and faith," says Alan Meisel, director of the Center for Bioethics and Health Law at the University of Pittsburgh.
On the positive side, the case has helped educate Americans about the importance of living wills. But rather than uniting the nation, the Schiavo case has increasingly divided and polarized the country, analysts say.
By intervening this week on behalf of Schiavo's parents, Mary and Robert Schindler, Congress has given new momentum to a movement of lawyers who are seeking to litigate their right-to-life perspective in right-to-die cases. One key obstacle for these lawyers has been that they often lack the necessary legal standing to insert themselves into such cases.
That is the importance of Congress's Schiavo law, and potentially its constitutional Achilles' heel, legal analysts say. It granted standing to Schiavo's parents, created federal court jurisdiction in a state court matter, and ordered the federal courts to consider the parents' claims.
During many years of litigation in the Florida courts, state judges have ruled that Mrs. Schiavo's husband, Michael, should serve as her guardian. In addition, the Florida courts have reached a legal judgment that Schiavo would prefer to end her life rather than continue living in what the courts say is a persistent vegetative state. Mrs. Schiavo's parents disagree with these findings. But they have been unable to convince any Florida judges to overturn them.
Some legal analysts say regardless of how the federal courts respond, the congressional action is dangerous because it undermines the finality of state court decisions and suggests that politicians can insert themselves into an individual's private medical affairs in ways that may clash with the views of that individual or other family members.
Michael Schiavo's lawyer says the key issue in the case is Terri Schiavo's right to be free from unwanted medical treatment.
Lawyers for the Schindlers argue that the key issue is their daughter's right to be free from state-backed intervention seeking to end her life. They add that as a Roman Catholic she has a moral obligation to continue to receive nutrition and hydration, even though it is through a feeding tube.
"She has never made what should be a legally cognizable decision to starve herself to death," says James Bopp of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled. "We have a terribly conflicted husband here and we should be very skeptical of anything he says."
The Schindlers and their supporters question Mr. Schiavo's motives and his fitness to serve as guardian. They point out that even though he remains married to Terri Schiavo he has long lived with another woman and that they have two children together.
Mr. Bopp says the congressional intervention in the Schiavo case was necessary and appropriate because the Florida courts have applied the wrong legal standard. "This just shows the danger of basing decisions about life and death upon casual oral statements made years ago," he says.
David Garrow, an Emory University legal historian, disagrees. "This is perhaps the most thoroughly reviewed and litigated death in American history," he says. The Florida courts have found, properly, that there is sufficient evidence of Schiavo's intent to end her life, he says.
As for the potential broader implications of congressional involvement in the case, Mr. Garrow says the action may have helped rather than hurt the right-to-die movement. "They have done the right-to-die advocates a huge favor by making this the No. 1 subject of conversation all across the country," he says.
Garrow says Republican leaders in Congress miscalculated the public's reaction to federal government intervention in the Schiavo case. "What is consistently clear across the board year after year is that a huge majority of Americans - including conservatives - want to be able to make these decisions for themselves," he says.
Bopp says the raging debate over Schiavo is shining a light on a practice that had become increasingly common. "This has been going on without public attention," he says. "It's prevalent now, that people who will live for years but whose lives are viewed as not worth living are being starved and dehydrated to death," he says. "This is focusing on the problem."
Mr. Meisel of the University of Pittsburgh also sees the Schiavo debate as a setback for right-to-die advocates. "There has been a period of legal development since 1975 in which it had become increasingly accepted to terminate life support - including feeding tubes - for a person in a persistent vegetative state," he says. "This whole episode will call that into question in doctors' minds."