PINELLAS PARK, Fla.—In a stunning climax, doctors on Friday removed the feeding tube that has sustained Terri Schiavo for 15 years, after a Florida judge rebuffed extraordinary efforts by congressional Republicans to intervene in the contentious battle over the fate of the brain-damaged woman.
Schiavo's parents—who battled her husband in court, at the state Legislature and in the halls of Congress to keep the tube in place—posted a statement on a Web site set up for their campaign confirming that the tube had been removed. Schiavo's husband, Michael, was at her side shortly after it was taken out, his lawyer said.
"It was an emotional occasion. Prayers were said," attorney George Felos said. He delivered a blistering assault on the congressional intervention, saying conservative Republicans trampled Schiavo's right to die with dignity. Their actions, he said, were more befitting "members of Stalin's politburo."
"Terri Schiavo has a right to die in peace," he said.
Medical experts have said it could take up two weeks for Schiavo to die without the water or nutrition the tube delivers.
The removal capped a blizzard of legal, political and legislative attempts by Schiavo's parents and religious groups to keep her alive, but it by no means marks the end of the struggle.
Attorneys for congressional Republicans appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court late Friday to overturn an earlier ruling by a Florida judge that they had no right to intervene in the case. The ruling was in response to Republican efforts, with the support of President Bush, to subpoena Schiavo to appear at congressional hearings so that she'd remain connected to the feeding tube. The Supreme Court rejected that appeal late Friday night.
At a brief hearing earlier Friday, the Pinellas County, Florida, judge, who's long sided with Michael Schiavo, ordered the tube removed.
"I heard no cogent reason why the (congressional) committee should be able to intervene in the case," Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer told attorneys in a conference call. He added that last-minute action by Congress doesn't wipe out years of court rulings in Florida, where the case has been argued for nearly a decade and where Greer has routinely ruled that Schiavo wouldn't want to live with a feeding tube.
Outside the Woodside Hospice here where Schiavo resides, news of the decision to remove the tube sent waves of dismay and cries of horror from a crowd gathered for a vigil.
A group of religious supporters fell to their knees and began praying, led by Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council.
"Holy God, have mercy on our country. We have all failed," Schenck said.
Operation Rescue Founder Randall Terry, a spokesman for Schiavo's parents, appealed over a conservative radio show for protesters to come to Florida and lobby legislators to intervene.
Terry said the movement on Schiavo's parents' behalf believes it has a stronger standing than it did when the Legislature intervened in Schiavo's case in 2003.
"We had less momentum, less publicity and less political firepower joining in," Terry said. "I have not in any way shape or manner given up hope."
Schiavo's feeding tube has been removed twice in the past, but re-inserted after court challenges and legislative intervention. Attorneys working with her husband predicted Friday that those fighting its removal wouldn't relent.
"It's premature to say this thing is over or it's coming to an end," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "I'll have to presume the radical politics in this knows no bounds."
But the courts continued to shut down the family. The Florida Supreme Court, which has refused to take up the issue, rapidly shut down an appeal from an attorney representing the U.S. House of Representatives.
The unusual congressional intervention came as legislative and legal efforts in Florida failed, despite a feverish push by Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP-led Legislature to intervene.
Bush had hoped to persuade state legislators, who in 2003 granted him the unprecedented power of overturning a court order and re-inserting Schiavo's tube, to once again prevail.
But senators said they didn't see a way to help Schiavo without making it impossible for others in her situation to die without government interference.
A visibly disappointed Florida state Sen. Dan Webster, a Republican who led the effort to pass Schiavo legislation, crumpled a $100 bill and tossed it to the floor of the Senate chamber, likening the currency to the brain-damaged woman who never left written instructions on how she wanted to be treated.
"Some of our lives are like crisp $100 dollar bills, some are a little crumpled up, some are soiled and may not be the life we'd like to have, but it's still life," Webster said, his voice quaking. "Terri Schiavo is still alive."
Critics have accused the Republicans of looking to bolster their standing with their religious base. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a likely presidential contender in 2008, early Friday wrote a letter inviting Schiavo and her husband to a March 28 Senate committee meeting, contending that the written request qualified Schiavo as a witness, protected by federal law.
That followed a House move to open a congressional investigation into Schiavo's case.
President Bush, who Thursday night issued a statement urging support for keeping Schiavo's feeding tube connected, pushed his Social Security overhaul in two stops in Florida, but never mentioned Schiavo.
His chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Bush applauds the efforts being made on Schiavo's behalf.
"We appreciate those who are standing on the side of protecting and defending life," McClellan said. "The president believes that America should be a society that is built on a culture of life. And he's spoken very strongly to that."
The woman at the center of the swirl of legal motions, religious protests and constitutional questions, has been disabled since 1990 after suffering severe brain damage due to a chemical imbalance.
Her husband initially believed she could be rehabilitated, but seven years ago he petitioned a court to have the feeding tube removed, saying Terri Schiavo told him that she wouldn't want to live by artificial means. Physicians and the courts have found Schiavo to be in a "persistent vegetative state" and say she has no hope of recovering.
But her parents, and in recent years, Christian conservatives and disability-rights groups who have adopted her cause with a fervor, argue that Schiavo is only dependent on the basic necessities of food and water and that she could recover. Withholding nutrition would cause Schiavo to starve to death, they said.
Both sides have tarred each other with accusations of wanting to cash in on the money from a malpractice claim, and in recent years the charges have escalated: Schiavo's parents accused Michael Schiavo of wanting their daughter to die so he can marry a girlfriend with whom he's had two children; Schiavo has criticized her parents for suggesting that there are no measures they wouldn't take—including amputation of their daughter's limbs—to keep her alive.
In the hospice on Friday, two Catholic priests, Monsignor Thaddeus Malanowski, 82, a retired Army chaplain, and the Rev. Joseph Braun administered several rites to Schiavo before the tube was disconnected.
Malanowski, who said he spent several hours with Schiavo, put a few drops of communion wine into her feeding tube, then performed a rite for absolution of her sins, an anointing, and gave her an apostolic blessing.
The last thing he did as he left her room was to make the sign of the cross, he said. Schiavo's sister, Suzanne, then gave her a kiss.
He described the scene as "very peaceful."
"I felt at ease," Malanowski said. "It was very calm, very peaceful the last two hours."
(Knight Ridder correspondents James Kuhnhenn, Erika Bolstad and Gary Fineout contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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