WASHINGTON — Last week the U.S. Congress voted to try to save, at least temporarily, the life of Terri Schiavo, who otherwise would slowly starve to death at the hospice in the state of Florida in which she is confined.

Terri collapsed in 1990, leaving her profoundly cognitively disabled. Michael Schiavo, her husband, won a $1.3 million medical malpractice judgment that included money for her care, which he subsequently refused to fund. Along the way he moved in with a woman and had two children. Seven years ago he petitioned the court to remove Terri’s feeding tube. He was finally freed to do so March 18 under a state court order.

Last week President George W. Bush signed emergency legislation allowing the federal courts to review the case. But the effort to reinsert Terri’s feeding tube has been rebuffed, so far, by the federal courts. She had been expected to live a week or two after the tube’s removal. Nothing about the case is simple; the issues involve:

The right to die. Virtually no one disputes Terri’s right to choose whether to live or die. The problem is, we don’t know what she would decide. Terri said she wanted “no tubes,” claims Michael, backed by his brother and sister-in-law. But no one else heard her talk that way.

Michael did not cite her alleged sentiments when requesting money for her rehabilitative care. A former girlfriend says he denies ever talking with Terri about the issue.

Permanent vegetative state. Although Terri is disabled, she may not be in a vegetative state, defined by Florida as “the absence of voluntary action or cognitive behavior” and “an inability to communicate or interact purposefully with the environment.” For instance, she seems to respond to visitors and events.

Some experts have dismissed the significance of her actions, but neuropsychologist Dr. Alexander Gimon contended that they “are completely inconsistent with a diagnosis of vegetative state.” Other specialists echo his views. Dr. William Hammesfahr, who has aided people with chronic brain injuries, says: “There are many approaches that would help Terri Schiavo.”

Terri’s and Michael’s interests. “Michael has not been a model husband,” observes New York commentator Deroy Murdock with great understatement.

Terri’s family has raised questions about his violent nature and the circumstances of her collapse. His de facto remarriage and failure to fund Terri’s rehabilitative care raise doubts about his motives. More damning was his question to nurse Carla Iyer: “Can’t you do anything to accelerate her death?”

The apparently disinterested Iyer says Michael also asked, “When is that bitch going to die?”

Federal-state conflicts. Traditionally, the Republican Party has advocated maximizing state autonomy to decide issues within their borders. Toward that end, the Republican Congress restricted federal death penalty appeals from state courts.

Yet the emergency legislation granted a federal district court in Florida jurisdiction over withholding food from Terri. The provision, though limited, allows national jurists to trump the Florida courts.

Republican grandstanding. Many Republican politicians believe that an injustice has been done to Terri and her family. Yet they are not above using the issue for political advantage. A memo distributed to Republican senators — though their leadership denies authorship — characterized the case as “a great political issue” useful in winning support from conservative Christians.

Ironically, when governor of Texas, Bush signed into law a bill allowing hospitals to end life support if the patient had no means to pay for care that was thought to be futile.

What will federal judges do? The U.S. Supreme Court could have ordered Terri’s feeding tube reinserted until the case was decided in a hearing. Her parents have sought to establish that removing the feeding tube violates her rights. Michael will push to void any order to reinsert the tube as unconstitutional. And the losing party will appeal.

The Schiavo case won’t be decided anytime soon. There seems to have been a serious miscarriage of justice at the state level. But that bad decision has resulted from the normal operation of the rule of law. Thus, as a matter of principle — principle normally embraced by Republican legislators and presidents — the national government should have stayed out of the case.

Setting the precedent of intervening in this very personal legal dispute will encourage Congress to overturn other state judgments, threatening good as well as bad decisions.

Perhaps most important is fixing the Florida courts. Their activist, and often dishonest, decisions run back through the 2000 election and the earlier tobacco litigation.

There is a simple way to end the legal wrangling: Transfer Terri to the care of her parents. Michael would thereby rebut attacks on his character. And he could get on with his life.

There’s nothing simple about the case of Terri Schiavo. Whatever happens next, the interruption of her young, vibrant life will remain a tragedy.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.