Exploring Human Potential

The Terri Schiavo Case Once Again Exploited – This Time By The Left.

Posted on | December 3, 2023 | 2 Comments

Mike Magee

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.

Having lived it, known some of the primary players, taught it in classes on medical journalism, medical history and medical ethics, the name Terri Schiavo understandably triggers something close to PTSD. She certainly has earned the right to “rest in peace.”

And yet, this past weekend, MSNBC Films ran “Between Life & Death,” an NBC News Studios production. As the promo stated “The documentary retraces the tragic story of Terri Schiavo from the 1990s and early 2000s, going beyond the headlines of the national debate over her life that reverberates in today’s culture wars. Watch Between Life & Death: Terri Schiavo’s Story.”

It would be easy to attribute this to “Florida-man” culture and the state’s peculiar predilection for right wing campaigns. After all, this is the state that Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell chose for the Moral Majority driven, Anita Bryant “Save Our Children” anti-gay campaign. That supported marches and speeches and book banning from 1977 to 1980 before burning itself out.

And now, as Gov. DeSantis’s culture wars have fallen flat in his home state, and his presidential prospects appear dim, the Schiavo case once again has been surfaced (this time by the left), and its advertising trailer (not surprisingly) completes the loop. The 60 second promo ends with these words delivered somberly by a legalistic male voice, “Reproductive Health and the Right to Die. It’s two sides of the same coin.”

Recent history has indeed “flipped the coin.” On June 24, 2022, the Justices on the Supreme Court allowed the government to “muscle out” the patient-physician relationship in the Mississippi abortion case (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization). “What possibly could go wrong if we remove doctors from delicate life and death decisions?”, I asked (fictitiously) at the time. The answer for Republicans arrived a few months later in the 2022 Midterm elections as multiple states abandoned the party to support women’s autonomy over their own medical decisions.

We’ll see how many viewers decided to tune in this past weekend. But in the meantime, for context and historic accuracy, here is a summary of the Schiavo case from my Fall, 2021 course, “The Right to Health Care and the U.S. Constitution” at the President’s College of the University of Hartford.

Schiavo Case: Summary and Timeline 

•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 was leaked to the public. 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 a well accepted medical media 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.




2 Responses to “The Terri Schiavo Case Once Again Exploited – This Time By The Left.”

  1. Michelle Gross
    December 4th, 2023 @ 10:50 am

    As a retired nurse, I love your columns and greatly appreciate your perspective but I don’t see how you can classify MSMBC’s exploitation of Ms. Schiavo’s story as being “from the left.” As a long-time reproductive rights activist, I assure you that mainstream media is not considered part of the left and we shouldn’t be painted with their actions.

  2. Mike Magee
    December 4th, 2023 @ 11:59 am

    Thanks, Michelle. Appreciate the constructive critique. As you correctly point out, our titling amounts, tied to MSNBC, amounts to an oversimplification of the issue. Political bias by one media outlet or another has been actively debated for some time, and especially at this moment in our history. That said, this case has once again surfaced, and been advanced to make a case that is prominently divergent from the case made by Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry and his allies among the Religious Right some years back. Best, Mike

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