Schiavo Case Brings Congress Back from Break

Published April 1, 2005

The Terri Schiavo controversy came to Washington, DC in March, with Congress calling a special session and President George W. Bush interrupting a vacation at his Texas ranch to sign a bill that permitted the Florida woman’s parents to bring the case into the federal court system.

The bill passed just after midnight on Monday, March 21, and Bush signed it shortly thereafter. An attorney for Terri Schiavo’s parents then filed a request for an emergency injunction at the Federal District Court in Tampa, asking the court to order the patient’s doctors to reinsert a feeding tube that was withdrawn on March 18 under a state court order. On March 21, the district court judge refused to order the tube’s reinsertion, and a federal appeals court judge affirmed that decision on March 22.

The 41-year-old Pinellas Park woman suffered a heart attack 15 years ago and sustained brain damage. State court proceedings have deemed Terri Schiavo to be in a “persistent vegetative state”–a determination with which her parents and others disagree.

Terri Schiavo’s husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, has said his wife would not have wanted to live in the condition she is in. He asked the court seven years ago to instruct doctors to remove the tube. Terri Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, want to care for their daughter and believe her condition might improve with therapies her husband will not allow. Terri Schiavo left no written directive before she became disabled.

In early March, Florida Circuit Court Judge George Greer ruled that Michael Schiavo had the right to request that his wife’s doctors remove the tube.

Congress Stepped in

On March 16, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protection of Incapacitated Persons Act (HR 1332) “to provide for the removal to Federal court of certain State court cases involving the rights of incapacitated persons, and for other purposes.”

According to House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the act would ensure “the opportunity for review of any violation of Terri Schiavo’s federal or constitutional rights.”

The Senate did not pass the bill.

Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) and others tried to delay removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube by subpoenaing her and her family to appear before Congress. The Florida courts rejected the move.

Compromise Bill Offered

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle agreed on a compromise bill that addressed only the Schiavo case. Senate Bill 686 passed the Senate on March 20 but was held up in the House by Democrats who demanded a roll call vote, which requires a quorum.

Congressional Republicans scrambled to get 218 Congressmen back to Washington from the Easter break that had just begun. A vote was taken at 12:20 a.m. on Monday, March 21, and the measure passed by a vote of 203 to 58. Bush signed the bill shortly after 1:00 a.m.

Congressional debate made clear the divisive nature of the case. Trent Franks (R- AZ) argued Terri Schiavo is “not brain dead or comatose.”

Barney Frank (D-MA) protested, “We are talking about a private bill,” calling the move a “failure to understand the separation of powers.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) said it was inappropriate for Congress to insert itself into this family tragedy. David Wu (D-OR) concurred, saying “nobody wants this [private] decision to be made by 536 politicians,” referring to Congress and the president.

Jeff Miller (R-FL) agreed the situation “is a family issue” but argued Terri Schiavo is entitled to due process. No one “may starve Terri to death until every legal recourse has been exhausted,” Miller said.

House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R- TX) told a press gathering on March 20, “The legal issues are complicated, but the moral ones are not.”

Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube had been removed twice before. In 2003, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) marshaled through the state legislature “Terri’s Law,” which reinserted the tube after it had been removed for six days. The bill was ruled unconstitutional on May 6, 2004, returning the matter to the courts.

Susan Konig ([email protected]) is managing editor of Health Care News.