Exploring Human Potential

The Terri Schiavo Case: A Cautionary Tale For Justices Who Want to Play Doctor.

Posted on | December 12, 2021 | 2 Comments

Mike Magee

For the Justices on the Supreme Court considering allowing the government to “muscle out” the patient-physician relationship in the Mississippi abortion case (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization), the question each should be asking is, “What possibly could go wrong if we remove doctors from delicate life and death decisions?”

For historic precedent and an answer to this question, they need only review the Terri Schiavo case. For those interested in a full summary, it was provided as part of my Fall, 2021 course, “The Right to Health Care and the U.S. Constitution” at the President’s College of the University of Hartford.

Here’s a quick summary and timeline of the case:

•Theresa Marie Schindler was born in a Philadelphia suburb on December 3, 1963. She and her bother Richard and sister Suzanne attended local schools. Terri struggled with weight and had an eating disorder.

•Terri married her husband, Michael in 1984 and moved to Florida to be close to her parents. Terri apparently continued to struggle with her eating disorder, a condition left undiscovered when she sought evaluation for infertility.

•On February 25, 1990, she collapsed in the lobby of their apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida. She was 26 years old. She was resuscitated, and taken to the local hospital, Humana Northside, where she was determined to have had a cardiac arrest brought on by a cardiac arrhythmia caused by hypokalemia with a blood potassium of 2.0 mEq’L (normal 3.5 – 5.0 mEq/L).

•Michael received a court order on June 18, 1990 making him legal guardian and director of future medical decisions related to his wife. Two physicians independently declared her in a “permanent vegetative state.” A gastric feeding tube was surgically placed to provide regular nutritional feedings.

•When she developed a urinary tract infection in mid-1993, he signed a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order on her behalf.

•In May, 1998, Michael filed a petition to remove the feeding tube, providing some evidence that his wife would not have wanted to continue to live this way. He refused her parents request that he divorce his wife and hand over decisions, and money garnered from a successful malpractice suit for ongoing care of Terri.

•The parents challenged the removal of the feeding tube that her doctors supported. The case went to Court and a decision to remove the tube was upheld in Florida Second District Court of Appeal in February 2000. After multiple legal maneuvers, the tube was finally removed on April 24, 2001. Terri was now 37 years old.

•The Schindler’s charged Michael Schiavo with perjury, and a judge ordered the tube reinserted 2 days later.

•Claims and counter-claims ate up two more years. On September 17, 2003, as Terri approached her 40th birthday, a frustrated presiding Judge George Greer declared the actions of the Schindler parents was “an attempt to re-litigate the entire case”, and ordered the feeding tube to be removed for a second time, which it was on October 15, 2003.

•With encouragement from Republican operatives in Florida, the Schindler’s joined by their son, Bobby, engaged anti-abortion Operation Rescue/Right to Life extremist Randall Terry in a very public campaign with daily demonstrations at the care facility.

•The Florida legislature in emergency session granted then Gov. Jeb Bush (filled with Presidential aspirations), the authority to intervene in the case. Citing the new “Terri’s Law”Bush ordered the feeding tube surgically reinserted for the third time.

• In the meantime the ACLU lined up with Terri’s husband. On May 5, 2004, “Terri’s Law” was declared unconstitutional.

•Senator Mel Martinez’s (R-FL) political career was damaged irreparably when he called for federal government intervention in the case. His top aide, Brian Darling’s memo went public. Commenting on the case, it read, “This is an important moral issue, and the pro-life base will be excited…This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a co-sponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats.”

•A second Republican casualty was the future political career of doctor turned politician, Senator Bill Frist, who had Presidential aspirations but couldn’t resist weighing in as a physician. Breaking an unspoken code of ethics for the medical profession, without every seeing the patient, he challenged the decision to remove Terri’s feeding tube, proclaiming on the floor of the Senate on March 17, 2005,  “I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office.”

•The United States Congress held hearings on the case, and then President George W. Bush brokered a compromise transferring the case to Federal Courts. The Federal Court agreed with prior State Court Appeals.

•Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed a final time on March 24, 2005. She died at a Pinellas Park hospice on March 31, 2005.


The case spanned 15 years, and was rejected by the Supreme Court for a hearing four times. Hijacked from doctors and patients by political opportunists and Right-to-Life activists, it rode the poor health and disability of one unfortunate woman literally into her grave with devastating consequences for all concerned.


2 Responses to “The Terri Schiavo Case: A Cautionary Tale For Justices Who Want to Play Doctor.”

  1. Nancy N
    December 13th, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    Please, please write an opinion piece for the New York Times. This is important insight into the proper (and improper) role of the courts.

  2. Mike Magee
    December 13th, 2021 @ 10:01 am

    Thanks, Nancy. Will do. Also, feel free to copy and paste, and republish with attribution, this piece far and wide. Best, Mike

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