Schiavo Case Leaves Questions

Terri Schiavo (search) may be gone, but the instructional tale of her 15-year ordeal shone the national spotlight on issues such as rights of the severely disabled, living wills, guardian rights and death and dying.

Schiavo was 41 when she died after being deprived of food, water and nutrients for almost 14 days. Her death came after various courts at both the state and federal level refused to reinsert the feeding tube that was keeping her alive. Her husband, Michael Schiavo (search), as Terri's legal guardian argued that she would not have wanted to be kept alive artificially. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler (search), insisted that she would not have wanted to die and argued that despite doctors' consensus that she was in a persistent vegetative state, she could get better with therapy.

Michael Schiavo ordered the feeding tube removed on March 18. His relatives claimed that the Schindlers made an international spectacle of what should have been a private matter.

"Mike never wanted to put Terri out there like a clown in a circus," said Michael Schiavo's brother, Scott. "Her parents have desecrated her memory and any type of dignity."

The political and legal wrangling that surrounded Schiavo's last weeks focused the nation on one woman whose plight galvanized the Christian conservative community and often soured opinions of the judiciary by conservatives. People in this camp called the removal of her feeding tube everything from "an act of medical terrorism" to "judicial murder" to a "modern-day crucifixion." One Schindler family spokesman even warned Republican lawmakers in the Florida Legislature that if Schiavo died, it would be their fault since they failed to effectively intervene.

On the other hand, liberals and others who criticized conservatives' efforts to get politicians involved said the issue wasn't so much about Schiavo and her specific situation but that it spoke to larger issues, such as abortion and the pro-life debate and stem cells. Their stance was that the issue over whether to take Schiavo off that form of life support was a private matter in which the federal government had no right to interfere.

Not only did state lawmakers and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush try to intervene in the situation over the past several years — particularly during the last few weeks of Schiavo's life — but President Bush and Congress even dipped their hand into the fight.

"I have not seen any means by which the executive branch can get involved," Bush told reporters March 28, saying he has no more legal options to exercise, other than continuing to urge state lawmakers to "err on the side of life." "My heart is broken about this."

The weekend the feeding tube was removed, Congress passed legislation that allowed the Schindlers to take their fight to federal court. That legal battle was lost as the federal courts upheld lower court rulings that allowed the feeding tube to stay removed. The U.S. Supreme Court also twice refused to hear the case.

"Look, it's a matter of life and death," Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told FOX News. "The Congress made a decision to give the courts an opportunity to look at it again. They looked at it again, and they chose not to act."

Schiavo's father, Bob Schindler, and his supporters urged Gov. Bush once again to step into the case on March 28, even though courts have ruled that the governor does not have authority to take custody of the severely brain-damaged woman.

"I plead again with the powers that be, don't give up on her," Schindler said after visiting his daughter at her hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla.

Gov. Bush had voiced his frustration at not being able to do more.

"It is frustrating for people to think that I have power that I don't, and not be able to act," Bush told The Associated Press on March 24. "I don't have embedded special powers. I wish I did in this particular case."

That same day, protesters carried crucifixes across from the White House, then visited three congressional offices to pressure lawmakers to intervene again. The House Government Reform Committee, which had issued a subpoena for Schiavo to appear at a hearing at her hospice on March 25, ended up withdrawing the subpoena, and House officials said another would not be issued. That move was more a tactic to buy time, since federal law requires witnesses subpoenaed by Congress to be physically protected.

But House officials still assured protesters that lawmakers would inquire into the broader issues involved in the case.

Doctors had said Schiavo would probably die within a week or two once the feeding tube — which kept her alive for 15 years — was disconnected. She relied on the tube since suffering catastrophic brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped beating and oxygen was cut off to her brain. Her heart stopped beating briefly from a chemical imbalance believed to have been brought on by an eating disorder. She left no living will.

Schiavo had been without food and water longer than she was in 2003, when the tube was removed for six days before Gov. Bush pushed through a law to have it reinserted. The law was later thrown out by the state Supreme Court. The feeding tube was first removed in April 2001.

Federal lawmakers like Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, were apparently going to work on a bill requiring a federal court review when families have disputes about a patient who did not leave written instructions about end-of-life wishes. But it's unclear just how much time the Republican-led Congress will spend on such issues, given that many polls show that the American public doesn't want the federal government interfering in such personal decisions.

Meanwhile, the Schiavo case has spurred many state governments to ponder similar issues.

Since January, nearly 20 states have introduced or passed bills strengthening and defining terms of consent and guardianship when it comes to life-prolonging medical procedures and decisions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most of these bills — like those in New Hampshire, Nevada, Hawaii and Kentucky — focus on living wills, health proxies and written declarations, the role of the state when there is no established guardian for an incapacitated person, and generally making it easier for people to make out advanced directives for their future care. Aside from legislation, people in many states, such as Wisconsin, have been searching the Web and government offices for information on how to create their own living wills.

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., said this was a fair role for the state legislatures to play, but neither the federal nor state governments should start creating new laws that would insert the government into cases similar to Schiavo's.

"We can't be making special laws for one special case," he said.'s Kelley Beaucar Vlahos contributed to this report.