TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Senate committee significantly narrowed a proposal Tuesday intended to keep Terri Schiavo (search) alive and a key lawmaker said the change could stymie efforts to intervene before the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube is removed.
Rep. John Stargel (search), R-Lakeland, said it was unlikely the House would agree to the Senate's changes, which he called "unconstitutional."
It's the first public road block as lawmakers rushed to approve proposals that would prevent the removal of the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube on Friday.
Both bills are expected to go to their full chambers when the bodies meet again on Thursday. Both chambers are given over to committee hearings again Wednesday.
Schiavo, 41, has been at the center of a long and bitter court battle between her parents and her husband, who wants to remove her feeding tube so she can die.
A House (search) panel approved a plan to require that patients in a persistent vegetative state receive nutrition and hydration unless they had a living will or left specific oral instructions refusing the measures.
But a Senate panel would only block the denial of food and water in cases where family members disagreed on whether to keep it in place. Then the patient would be kept alive unless he or she had expressed different wishes in writing.
"Anything's possible, but I don't think that's the direction we're heading in, Stargel said. "I believe it's contrary to the case law."
Stargel's opposition to the Senate's language would significantly influence House Speaker Allan Bense's position on the bill, Bense's spokesman said.
"He's said all along that he doesn't want to sign anything that's unconstitutional just to get the bill passed," Towson Fraser said.
Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, who is also closely involved in the negotiations between House and Senate, confirmed that his House colleagues think the Senate bill "has some constitutional problems." But, Goodlette said, the two sides were still working trying to reach a compromise.
Gov. Jeb Bush said he hoped Circuit Judge George W. Greer, who cleared the way for the feeding tube to be removed, would give legislators more time to pass the bill, if it was needed.
"I would hope the judge would show some deference to the Legislature as well," he said.
Bush hasn't commented on whether he would sign either bill, but supported the efforts of lawmakers.
"As a society, we need to protect innocent life and we should err on the side of caution," Bush said.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the retroactivity in both bills would be upheld by the courts, since people currently in a vegetative state would have expressed their wishes before the law was changed.
Lawmakers say the bill, if deemed constitutional, would apply to Schiavo, who court-appointed doctors say is in a persistent vegetative state.
She did not leave any written instructions, but her husband, Michael Schiavo, contends she told him that she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Bob and Mary Schindler dispute that and say their daughter could recover with proper treatment.
In a letter to the Florida Senate, Michael Schiavo's attorney George Felos said Monday that lawmakers had not been told the facts of the case and said the case has "been the subject of an unprecedented campaign of misinformation."
Two trials have determined that Terri Schiavo has no hope of ever regaining consciousness and multiple appellate courts have agreed, Felos wrote.
He said Terri Schiavo expressed her end-of-life wishes the way most people do — verbally and without leaving written instructions.
"The proposed legislation should be exposed for what it is, an attempt by opponents of medical freedom of choice to prevent Floridians from declining or ending artificial feeding," Felos wrote. "The fate of more than Mrs. Schiavo hangs in the balance."
Felos also wrote the United States Senate expressing similar concerns about federal legislation which would allow federal courts to become involved in disputes similar to the one between Michael Schiavo and his in-laws.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he believes the bills are unconstitutional.
"The Legislature can dress this up as much as they want, but ... this is an attempt to undermine the role of the courts," he said.
House Democrats said their Republican colleagues were rushing through the process for the benefit of one woman without making prudent modifications.
"We need to be able to talk long and hard about this," said Shelley Vana, D-West Palm Beach. "I know that we're trying to meet a deadline, but we have to pass good legislation."
Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, argued that the hope of saving a single life made the rush necessary.
"Life is on the line. Life hangs in the balance right now," he said.