A Horrible Easter Anniversary: The Killing of Terri Schiavo

Opinion   |   Debi Vinnedge   |   Mar 25, 2013   |   5:29PM   |   Washington, DC

As Holy Week begins and we reflect on the passion of Jesus Christ, it is especially appropriate to remember another person who eight years ago at this time was subjected to a tortuous, brutal and heinous death – one whose anniversary falls this year on Easter Sunday: Terri Schindler-Schiavo.

And just as the Church now ushers in our new Pope Francis, I am reminded how two days after Terri’s death we also lost our Holy Father.  As Pope John Paul II lay dying at the Vatican his aides would later tell the Schindlers that when he learned of Terri’s death, it was “the final blow to his broken heart.”

For most pro-lifers following Terri’s case of “legal” murder by her estranged husband Michael and his right-to-die advocate attorney George Felos, the verdict was a haunting reminder of the “lawful” murder of millions of our innocent preborn. In fact, many began calling it the Roe v. Wade of euthanasia.

But in Roe v. Wade few remember that it was actually a legal precedent in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) that set the stage for current abortion laws. In Griswold, the Supreme Court ruled that the denial of contraceptives was unconstitutional under an alleged “right of privacy.” Who would have thought that Griswold, combined with a later alarming Florida legal precedent, would predetermine Terri’s fate?

In 1986, Estelle Browning, an 86-year-old woman, suffered a stroke that left her severely brain-damaged. Unable to swallow, a feeding tube was inserted by attending physicians. Browning, however, had a written advance directive, stating she didn’t want artificial sustenance if she became terminally ill. In 1987, the court denied her cousin’s petition to remove the tube, basing its decision on Florida’s Life-Prolonging Procedures Act, which allowed patients to refuse medical treatment only under specific circumstances. Browning, the judge ruled, did not qualify.

After Browning’s natural death in 1990 the Second District Court of Appeals overturned this decision based on the “right to privacy,” and the Florida Supreme Court upheld the ruling. According to Justice Rosemary Barkett, who wrote for the 6-1 majority, “The right to privacy and freedom from intrusion into one’s own body is rooted in our nation’s philosophical and political heritage.”

In absence of written directives, the evidence of a patient’s wishes could also be determined solely by the guardian, which is called “substituted judgment.” This “judgment” is supposedly not what the guardian wishes, but what the patient (allegedly) desires. The only necessary qualifier would be “clear and convincing evidence” as simple as an oral statement, claiming that the person would not want to live. Once this is satisfied, the Court ruled, the State can not override the so-called “right to privacy.”

Ten years later, this “clear and convincing evidence” became the entire focus of Terri Schiavo’s case. However, the testimonies given from both the Schiavo and Schindler witnesses were contradicting hearsay, leaving Judge George Greer as the sole and final arbitrator of whom he chose to believe.

Media reports claimed that at least 19 other judges had reviewed the case, but in reality not one other judge heard any testimony whatsoever. The Courts simply rubber-stamped a legal decision, not an evidentiary one. In their view, Greer had acted in accord with the letter of the law, despite that the “clear and convincing” evidence was simple hearsay. The appellate courts only had to ensure that the law was followed—not that the evidence was credible—because hearsay is subject to opinion, not legalese.

During Terri’s final weeks, as the State Department of Children and Families attempted to take Terri into protective custody, attorney George Felos reminded Judge Greer of a startling fact: Even if Michael himself suddenly decided not to remove Terri’s feeding tube, it still had to be done, because the court had determined by “clear and convincing evidence” that this was Terri’s wish.

More appalling was Greer’s reaction to the Schindlers requests for swallowing tests for Terri as he angrily thundered, “I don’t want anybody putting anything into that girl’s mouth!” Horrifically, this statement would later be used to deny Terri the right to receive Holy Communion. However, food and water given orally is not considered medical care even by Florida’s weak definition.

In addition, sustenance provided artificially or naturally cannot be denied to a disabled person under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It states: “Nothing in the Act or this part authorizes the representative or guardian of an individual with a disability to decline food, water, medical treatment, or medical services for that individual.”

But because the Federal Court refused to hear simultaneous lawsuits brought by 26 disability groups decrying these and other violations, Greer’s ruling stood unchallenged. Not only had Terri’s nurses testified that they had fed Terri gelatin and pudding in the past, but Terri also easily swallowed the average one-liter output of saliva healthy people consume daily. That Greer would not allow oral feeding, swallowing tests or therapy simply codified his own intent to mandate Terri’s execution.

The second determination for ordering Terri’s feeding tube removal was the claim that she was in an irreversible persistent vegetative state (PVS) with no hope for recovery. Two of Michael’s and one state-appointed neurologist testified that Terri was in a PVS, completely contradicting 16 other medical professionals who attested she was not.

Judge Greer later admitted he didn’t bother reading any of those statements because he simply didn’t find them credible. Never mind that one of Michael’s witnesses, Dr. Ronald Cranford is an advocate for “End-of-Life Choices,” a group promoting euthanasia. Or that the court appointed witness, Cleveland neurologist Peter Bambikidis, a colleague of Felos, spent only 30 minutes examining Terri. In truth, Greer’s mind was set.

During subsequent hearings in early 2005, 33 others – including 14 physicians (6 who are neurologists) submitted testimony declaring Terri had been misdiagnosed, while none were submitted by Felos to contradict their findings. Again, Judge Greer refused to consider the growing and glaring evidence. Consider what neurologist Dr. James Gabel, M.D., M.S., F.A.H.A, reported:

“Terri Schiavo is not in a persistent vegetative state. The parts of Terri Schiavo’s brain which would allow her to perceive pain, her thalami, were clearly intact and visible on her CT scan images shown by her own husband, Michael Schiavo, on national television. The parts of Terri Schiavo’s brain, which would allow her to swallow on her own, were also intact, and, in fact, she did not suffer from medically significant dysphagia (swallowing difficulty). If she had, she would have been dead long ago from a condition known as aspiration pneumonia, an infection in the lungs which is the result of inhaling one’s own saliva.”

In short, Terri was not dying. She was not suffering or receiving any type of life support. She was simply disabled and unable to feed herself.

Terri could have been fed orally and by law she should have been. Granted, she might have needed swallowing therapy to stimulate the muscles in her throat that had not been used for many years, but this would have been a relatively short and simple treatment. Yet Judge Greer refused to even consider it, incredibly noting that “Terri might aspirate food into her lungs and die a cruel and painful death.”



The day before the scheduled removal of Terri’s feeding tube on March 18, 2005, the Senate Health Committee and the House Government Reform Committee issued congressional subpoenas requiring both Michael and Terri to appear before Congress for a March 28 hearing. That morning, while Hospice was being served with Congressional letters instructing them not to remove Terri’s feeding tube, Attorney Barbara Weller and Terri’s sister Suzanne were happily explaining the upcoming trip to an elated Terri. But unbeknownst to them, the opposition was quickly moving to seek Greer’s intervention. As the 2:00 PM deadline approached, Greer made an unprecedented ruling to ignore the Federal subpoenas and ordered Hospice to proceed with the tube removal according to the court mandate.

This would be the first instance of Congress’ utter failure to legally preserve Terri’s life. It is a federal crime to obstruct or prevent such witnesses from appearing and while members of Congress appeared outraged and threatened to charge Greer with Contempt of Congress, they did nothing to enforce the subpoena, nor did they punish Greer for his judicial misconduct.

In the final week before Terri’s death, Congress passed legislation that was immediately signed into law by President Bush requiring the Federal Court to do a “de-novo” review of the entire case. Yet once more, they did nothing to enforce the very legislation they passed.

Clearly, Judge Greer violated several Federal Laws and stretched the interpretation of Florida statutes as well. But in the end, it would be the appalling court precedent of Estelle Browning’s case that allowed him to do so. In truth, one relatively insignificant district judge usurped the authority of the State Legislature, the State Executive office, Congress and the President of the United States. He succeeded in condemning an innocent woman to death for no other “crime” than that of being disabled.

Eight years ago this might have been simply viewed as “the perfect storm”.  Timing is everything, they say.  But frighteningly enough with Obama-care looming, it is now an inevitable “climate change” – a mere glimpse of the government-mandated “futile care policies” descending upon us.

Without question, such laws, the courts, and tyrannical authority must be stopped. For if our society becomes one that judges on the basis of a “quality of life” ethic, that society will selfishly seek any means to rid itself of any imperfections or burdens—at any cost. In the words of Clemens Von Galen, the Bishop of Munster, Germany, who fought fiercely against Hitler’s euthanasia policies in 1939, “Once we admit the right to kill unproductive persons, then none of us can be sure of our own life.”

No better time than this week to reflect – Terri – we will never forget!

LifeNews Note: Debi Vinnedge is the director of the pro-life group Children of God for Life.