Family Feud Continues Over Terri Schiavo

by Mark Long
April 1, 2005

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (AP) - The seething feud between Terri Schiavo's parents and husband raged on even after her death, as both families planned separate funerals for the woman whose final months riveted the nation and reached all the way to the halls of Congress and the White House.

Schiavo, 41, died Thursday, nearly two weeks after her feeding tube was removed by a judge's order. Michael Schiavo says his wife told him long ago that she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, disputed that, and held out hope for a miracle recovery for the brain-damaged daughter they said still struggled to talk.

The disagreement over Terri Schiavo's medical condition for the last 15 years will be settled by yet another outsider. A medical examiner is conducting an autopsy that could help determine what Schiavo's state of consciousness was and whether she was abused by her husband, as the Schindlers allege. Those results are expected in a few weeks.

The matter of burying Schiavo, though, is something the two sides have had to settle themselves. The Schindlers, who are devout Catholics, wanted their daughter's remains buried in Florida, where they live. Michael Schiavo, however, has custody of the body and plans to have his wife cremated.

Schiavo's ashes will be buried in an undisclosed location near Philadelphia so that her immediate family does not attend and turn the moment into a media spectacle, said Scott Schiavo, Michael Schiavo's brother. A funeral Mass, a concession to the Schindlers, was tentatively scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday.

"After these recent years of neglect at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and care for her, she is finally at peace with God for eternity," said her sister, Suzanne Vitadamo.

George Felos, Michael Schiavo's attorney, said she died a "calm, peaceful and gentle death," cradled by her husband and with a stuffed animal under her arm. Michael Schiavo and Felos were present when she died.

The ill will between husband and in-laws didn't abate even during Schiavo's final moments. 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," the Rev. Frank Pavone, a Roman Catholic priest and one of the Schindlers' spiritual advisers. He called Schiavo's death a "killing."

Felos confirmed that no one from Terri Schiavo's side of the family was with her when she died, but disputed the Schindlers' account of why that was. Schiavo's siblings had been asked to leave the room so that the hospice staff could examine her, and Bobby Schindler started arguing with a law enforcement official so Michael Schiavo had him kept out, Felos said.

"Mrs. Schiavo had a right to have her last and final moments on this earth be experienced by a spirit of love and not of acrimony," the lawyer said.

On Thursday night, Bob Schindler thanked supporters during a 90-minute memorial service that drew more than 200 people to a nearby church.

"You got us through a really tough time," he said. "We're so appreciative of it. We'll never forget you all. Thank you so, so much. And Terri thanks you, too."

The death brought to a close what was easily the longest, most bitter - and most heavily litigated - right-to-die dispute in U.S. history.

Schiavo suffered brain damage in 1990 after a chemical imbalance caused her heart to stop. She had left no written instructions in the event she became disabled.

During the seven-year legal battle, federal and state courts repeatedly rejected extraordinary attempts at intervention by Florida lawmakers, Gov. Jeb Bush, Congress and President Bush on behalf of her parents.

Supporters of her parents, many of them anti-abortion activists and political conservatives, harshly criticized the courts. Many religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, said the removal of sustenance violated fundamental religious tenets.

About 40 judges in six courts were involved in the case at one point or another. Six times, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. As Schiavo's life ebbed away, Congress rushed through a bill to allow the federal courts to take up the case, and President Bush signed it March 21. But the federal courts refused to step in.

The case prompted many people to ponder what they would want if they, too, were in such a desperate medical situation, and many rushed to draw up living wills. The case also led to a furious debate over the proper role of government in life-and-death decisions, and whether the Republicans in Congress violated their party's principles of limited government and deference to the states by getting involved.

In Washington on Thursday, the president was careful to extend condolences to Schiavo's "families" - meaning both Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers - even though he backed efforts to reconnect her feeding tube. He urged the creation of "a culture of life where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected."

House Republican Leader Tom DeLay condemned the state and federal judges who refused to prolong her life, and he warned that lawmakers "will look at an arrogant and out-of-control judiciary that thumbs its nose at Congress and the president."

"I never thought I'd see the day when a U.S. judge stopped feeding a living American so that they took 14 days to die," he said.

Gov. Bush, the president's brother, said Schiavo'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."

Outside the hospice - where over the past few weeks more than 50 protesters were arrested, many for trying to symbolically bring Schiavo food and water - demonstrators wept, prayed and sang hymns. Some threw their protest signs down in disgust.

Before she was stricken, Terri Schiavo had recurring battles with weight, and her collapse at age 26 was believed to have been caused by an eating disorder. Her parents, who visited her nearly every day, reported their daughter responded to their voices, and video showed her appearing to interact with her family. 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.

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. Bush rushed Terri's Law through the Legislature and had the tube reinserted after six days. The Florida Supreme Court later struck down the law as unconstitutional interference in the judicial system.

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