Florida Legislature Undecided on 'Terri's Law'

"Terri's Law" was actually an appropriate label for the measure passed by the Florida Legislature last fall to save the life of brain-damaged woman Terri Schiavo (search).

Lawmakers in special session crafted the bill so narrowly as to apply only to Schiavo's unique situation. At the urging of her parents, they gave Gov. Jeb Bush (search) authority to order a feeding tube reinserted into her stomach, six days after her husband had it removed with court permission. tention, aroused strong emotions on both sides and brought to the forefront a public discussion of how to treat incapacitated people who leave no written end-of-life plans.

But how much the Florida Legislature will delve into end-of-life issues (search) again when the regular session begins March 2 remains to be seen. There is disagreement in Tallahassee about what, if anything, needs to be done.

The House Judiciary Committee took the first step Feb. 3, proposing a bill that would keep incapacitated people alive regardless of their family's wishes if there are no advance directives.

The committee didn't vote immediately because several members expressed misgivings about details. The panel will take up the issue again in the coming weeks, though, and it could quickly get to the House floor.

Opponents, such as Rep. Dan Gelber, say it inserts the government into a decision better made by families. He questioned how the bill would affect the parents of children who are too young to legally express in writing what they would want.

"For us to be making these decisions for families is patently absurd," said Gelber, D-Miami Beach, one of several Democrats who said he was prepared to vote against the bill. "These are intensely personal family decisions, and they should remain that way. We should not be involved and neither should the governor."

Gelber said many of his colleagues are under political pressure to address issues related to the Schiavo situation. He thinks their efforts would be better spent on other matters.

"We've spent more time trying to provide health care to a woman who doesn't want it than to 100,000 kids on the KidCare (search) waiting list who need it," he said.

Supporters say if people didn't want to be kept alive with a feeding tube they should say so in a written directive.

If not, "we're going to err on the side of life," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral.

The Senate is unlikely to move as quickly and may not even consider the issue at all. Senate President Jim King has already expressed his reluctance to deal with it this year.

Moreover, the Jacksonville Republican said he now regrets voting for the bill that allowed Bush to intervene to keep Schiavo fed and hydrated, calling it "probably one of the worst votes that I've ever done."

King has long supported a Florida law that allows surrogates such as spouses and relatives to decide whether to keep alive people in a vegetative state who haven't specified their own wishes.

He told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board recently that he bowed to the intense public pressure to help Schiavo at the time and was worried about being blamed for her death if he didn't go along with the effort.

"After the vote there were far more people critical of what we had done and very vehemently angry at what we had done than there were people supporting it," King said. He said there was "no question" he would not vote that way today, "and if it comes up again I will not do it."

King said he expects "Terri's Law" will eventually be overturned in court.

Senate Majority Leader Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, shares King's views. He said was just confronted with an end-of-life decision recently when he decided to remove his mother's feeding tube.

"It's a very tough decision but quite frankly we were put in a situation in that special session where we felt we didn't have any other thing to do," he said. "If I had to do it over, I most likely would not take the same vote myself."

Bush, who continues to defend his decision to sign the bill written specifically to keep Schiavo alive, said he supports the Legislature looking at the broader issue of how to deal with end-of-life decisions when someone doesn't have a living will.

Florida courts have for years affirmed Michael Schiavo's efforts to remove his wife's feeding tube. He convinced a circuit judge that Terri once made statements that she would not want to be kept alive artificially.

Michael Schiavo sued Bush immediately after the Legislature acted, asserting that the law violated Terri Schiavo's right to privacy and separation-of-power provisions of the Florida Constitution. That lawsuit is pending in circuit court in Clearwater, held up by procedural issues.

Terri Schiavo's parents have fought her husband all the way. They doubt she had any such end-of-life wishes and believe she could be rehabilitated and even learn to eat on her own with therapy.

Meanwhile, the 40-year-old woman continues to live in a Clearwater nursing home in what some doctors call a "persistent vegetative state," (search) which has been her condition since she collapsed in 1990.