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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 October, 2003, 17:50 GMT 18:50 UK
Florida courts and legislators collide
By Rachel Clarke
BBC News, Washington

Doctors and lawyers in the US have spent more than a decade arguing whether Terri Schiavo should be allowed to die.

Judgement after judgement supported her husband Michael who said his wife - in what doctors call a permanent vegetative state - did not want to be kept alive artificially.

Protesters campaigning to keep Terri Schiavo alive
Public opinion may have swayed legislators
Earlier this month the feeding tube was removed at a hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida, after Ms Schiavo's parents lost what could have been their last legal case to continue her treatment.

But just days later, Florida's legislature passed a new law allowing Governor Jeb Bush to order that Ms Schiavo be fed again through the tube - the only treatment she needs to live.

After months of staying away from the media, Ms Schiavo's parents and brother are now often in front of the TV cameras, happy that they finally have a win.

But the unusual intervention of legislators in an individual case already tried at length by the courts has alarmed many others.

Individual states like Florida and the US as a whole have constitutions which enshrine a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Critics say the passing of what is now known in Florida as "Terri's Law" sets a dangerous precedent of politicians meddling in individual lives and the legal system, but others claim such an intervention was necessary.

It's generally a bad idea to base public policy on a gut-wrenching and emotional case like this
Bill Allen,
University of Florida
Governor Bush sided with Ms Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, and signed the bill into law and ordered the resumption of feeding to Ms Schiavo, who suffered severe brain damage 13 years ago.

He said the case was a "tragic situation" and believed the response was "legitimate".

Bill Allen, professor of bioethics, law and medical professionalism at the University of Florida's medical school, disagrees.

"It's generally a bad idea to base public policy on a gut-wrenching and emotional case like this," he told BBC News Online.

TV impact

In general, legislatures pass broad laws and courts interpret them in individual cases.

But here, lawmakers had allowed themselves to be swayed by an emotional argument and repeated broadcasts of a video showing Ms Schiavo apparently awake and alert, even though many doctors say she has no consciousness, he said.

File photo of Terri Schiavo
Video of Terri Schiavo has been played repeatedly on TV networks
Professor Allen said the courts had "bent over backwards" to examine all parts of the case but the situation changed drastically when TV networks started to run the video and interview the Schindlers. It then became a media event and tens of thousands of e-mails were sent to local legislators. "It gets crazy," he said.

"This is like saying the Colorado legislature and governor should join up and decide Kobe Bryant's guilt or innocence based on what they saw on TV," he said, referring to the pending case of the basketball star accused of sexual assault.

"There are a lot of legislators thinking this isn't the right thing, but it became a stampede," he said.

Election importance

Political considerations, never far from the surface in the US, are likely to have played a part. Florida remains a key state in next year's presidential election being fought by the governor's brother and Johnnie Byrd, Florida's Republican speaker who pushed Terri's Law, is standing for a US Senate seat now in Democrat hands.

While the case could set a dangerous precedent, Professor Allen said the "real tragedy" was that the new law could let families of an incapacitated person hold relatives hostage to their own religious or moral views unless there was incontrovertible evidence that that is not what the individual wanted.

There's an inherent flaw in the system and the legislators realised that
Pamela Hennessy,
Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation
Pamela Hennessy, a family friend involved in the campaign to continue feeding of Terri Schiavo, rejected suggestions that the Schindlers had been chasing the media for publicity, saying it was the other way around.

She said the intervention of the Florida legislature was both just and necessary.

"There are no checks and balances right now, Terri has not been given due process," she told BBC News Online.

"There's an inherent flaw in the system and the legislators realised that."

She said the family's emotions were up and down, though Ms Schiavo had appeared responsive and alert when the feeding resumed after several days of it being absent.

And none of Ms Schiavo's closest supporters had any qualms about the action taken and the media and political attention it has attracted.

"Even if this whole effort to save her life... fails, maybe for the next person it will be more difficult for people to do this to someone."




SEE ALSO:
US brain-damage woman gets fluids
22 Oct 03 |  Americas
Florida steps in to hospital case
21 Oct 03 |  Americas
Brain-damage US woman's food ended
15 Oct 03 |  Americas
Fight over Florida woman's fate
01 Oct 03 |  Americas
Right to die: Who should decide?
22 Oct 03 |  Have Your Say


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