By Jane Roh, ,
Published May 19, 2015
Terri Schiavo (search), the severely brain-damaged Florida woman at the heart of an epic legal and political battle that launched a national debate on end-of-life issues, died Thursday morning.
The 41-year-old woman died in her Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice at 9:05 a.m. EST, nearly 14 days after doctors removed the feeding tube that had kept her alive for 15 years. Her husband, Michael Schiavo (search), held her in his arms as she took her final breaths, his attorney said.
George Felos declined to describe in detail his client's wife's death, but said: "It was evident to everyone around him, the profound emotion and loss for Mr. Schiavo. It was clear to everyone he loved Terri deeply and her passing was a tremendous loss for him."
Later Thursday afternoon, Terri Schiavo's father, sister and brother spoke sorrowfully at a press conference. Schiavo's mother, so prominent during the increasingly desperate fight to keep her daughter alive, did not attend.
"As a member of our family unable to speak for yourself, you spoke loudly," said Schiavo's brother, Bobby. "We know that God loves you more than we do. You must accept your untimely death as God's will," he said, addressing his late sister.
Speaking to the family's supporters, Schiavo's sister, Suzanne Vitadamo, said, "We assure you you can be proud of this remarkable woman who has captured the attention of the world."
Vitadamo also asked supporters who were upset to refrain from acts of violence, and her brother asked forgiveness for anything the family had said or done that "did not honor our faith."
Earlier in the afternoon, Felos disclosed for the first time that Michael Schiavo had been living in the hospice since March 18, when his wife's feeding tube was removed. He said Terri Schiavo's breathing became irregular and her heart weaker on Wednesday, signaling to doctors that she was "entering the final stages of the death process."
After Schiavo died and a van from the Pinellas County medical examiner's office arrived, about 30 to 40 people gathered around her body as a hospice chaplain said a prayer. The group included Michael Schiavo, his brother Brian, Felos, another attorney, the hospice workers who had cared for her over the years, and the law enforcement officers who protected her in her final days.
Those who knew Schiavo have often observed that the lively but shy woman who struggled with weight problems since childhood would never have imagined herself as the object of so much attention.
But it was clear the tug-of-war over her was not over. Earlier on Thursday, a representative for her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler (search), accused Michael Schiavo of barring their family from the hospice room where their daughter died.
"Unfortunately, just 10 or so minutes before she died we were told we had to leave the room because there would be an assessment of her condition and because her husband Michael wanted to be in the room," said Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life (search).
Pavone said Michael Schiavo would not allow Terri Schiavo's siblings to remain in the room, saying he wanted some time alone with her. A few minutes later, Terri Schiavo died.
"And so his heartless cruelty continues until this very last moment," Pavone said. He added: "This is not only a death, with all the sadness that brings, but this is a killing, and for that we not only grieve that Terri has passed but we grieve that our nation has allowed such an atrocity as this and we pray that it will never happen again."
Felos, who did not appear until the afternoon, said he was troubled the Schindlers' allies were still on the attack on such a solemn day.
"It was disquieting to hear the priest issue venom and make those extremely harsh statements about Mr. Schiavo," he said. "Instead of words of healing, words of reconciliation, compassion and understanding, we had a platform for an ideological agenda. It was counterproductive and disquieting."
Felos also clarified the dispute between the parties, saying that Terri Schiavo's siblings had been in the room with her from 7 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. At 8:45, they were asked to leave the room so the hospice administrator could perform a medical assessment, but Bobby Schindler resisted, later fighting with a law enforcement officer, according to Felos.
"Bobby suggested he wanted to remain in the room with Mr. Schiavo and the police officer. Mr. Schiavo made the decision that it was not appropriate under the circumstances," Felos said. "Mr. Schiavo's overriding concern was that she had a right to die with dignity and in peace. ... Mr. Schiavo was not going to permit a potentially explosive situation knowing there had been a dispute" between Schindler and the police officer.
Bob and Mary Schindler had not been to the hospice to visit their daughter since Easter Sunday, Felos said. Felos said he did not know if Michael Schiavo, who has carefully guarded his privacy, would speak to the media.
Terri Schiavo suffered catastrophic brain damage in 1990 after a heart attack, brought on by a chemical imbalance associated with bulimia. Court-appointed doctors who examined her said she had only a reflexive ability to react to stimuli, and that she had no consciousness, and was unaware of what was happening around her and to her.
People in a persistent vegetative state cannot feel physical or psychic pain, doctors say.
Michael Schiavo has said his wife wanted to be cremated, and he planned to inter her ashes on his family's plot in Pennsylvania. The Schindlers have said their Roman Catholic daughter was very religious and would not want to be cremated. They asked a court to allow them to bury their daughter in Florida.
Protesters who have kept vigil outside the hospice for nearly two weeks were seen crying, screaming, praying and singing hymns. Some held signs comparing Schiavo's predicament to the passion of Jesus Christ.
The scene outside the hospice was hardly a microcosm of the rest of the nation. The latest FOX News poll shows 54 percent of Americans saw the removal of the feeding tube as "an act of mercy," compared with 29 percent who called it murder. Many polls, including FOX's, show that in a medical catastrophe most Americans want the right to determine when to die. Most Americans also feel that the government has no business meddling in their end-of-life decisions.
Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Vatican's office for sainthood, denounced Schiavo's death, saying that "an attack against life is an attack against God, who is the author of life."
Later, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said: "An existence was interrupted. A death was arbitrarily hastened because nourishing a person can never be considered employing exceptional means."
Pope John Paul II (search), who was hospitalized twice in February for breathing difficulties and has long suffered from Parkinson's Disease, has recently started being fed through a tube in his nose.
President Bush opened a press conference by offering his condolences to Schiavo's "families," perhaps an intentional departure from other lawmakers' statements that exclude mention of her husband, Michael.
Bush said he hoped Terri Schiavo's death would lead to a better appreciation for a "culture of life, where all Americans are valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others."
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search), said he was grieving and offered his condolences to her parents and siblings.
"I remain convinced, however, that Terri's death is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society. For that, we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us," the governor said in a statement. Gov. Bush has clashed with his state's courts over the years in his bid to keep Schiavo's feeding tube attached.
Legal analysts said to expect legislatures across the country to examine their end-of-life laws.
"In my view, the most material question is the status of a guardian," said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University who has followed Schiavo's case closely.
"I personally believe that the Schindlers had good ground to question whether Michael Schiavo should have continued as the guardian after he formed a new family with another woman and ultimately had two children by that individual," Turley told FOXNews.com.
Michael Schiavo has repeatedly refused to give up legal guardianship of his wife despite her parents' pleas. Schiavo has always said, and the courts have affirmed, that his wife did not want to be kept alive artificially. But the Schindlers have insisted that Terri Schiavo wanted to be kept alive, and have even disputed the consensus of court-appointed doctors that she would never recover.
Felos announced earlier this week that there would be an autopsy of Terri Schiavo's body, though Florida law mandates a medical examiner investigation. Felos said his client hoped to settle once and for all questions over her physical state as well as some recent allegations that Michael Schiavo abused and attempted to kill his wife after she was hospitalized in 1990.
The Schindlers have not objected to the autopsy; they hope the findings will prove their daughter was not in a persistent vegetative state as has been diagnosed by numerous doctors. They and their supporters have said, against all known medical evidence, that Schiavo was able to communicate and respond. In one emergency legal filing last week, they claimed she had said she wanted to live.
While Schiavo's body would likely be returned to her husband within 24 hours, autopsy results may not be available for weeks, a spokesman for the medical examiner's office said.
FOX News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano said even if it turned out Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state, her husband could not legally be held liable because the courts have consistently sided with him.
Napolitano also predicted that legislatures would lay down specific guidelines for courts in ruling on such cases, pointing to the fact that Florida Circuit Court Judge George W. Greer (search), who has presided over the Schiavo case from the beginning, has never gone to see her himself.
"I insist on going to the bedside" in cases like this, Napolitano said. "I want to see this person. There is no rule of law telling me to do so, just as there was none telling Judge Greer to do so.
"Had he done that, there would have been a little more acceptance of his decisions. I think you'll find the legislature making judges perform these visitations," Napolitano said.
George Washington's Turley also said the extraordinary measures Congress took two weekends ago to prolong Schiavo's life hurt the Schindlers' case.
"Congress' political intervention shifted attention away from the merits of the [Schindlers'] case to a constitutional controversy. It essentially poisoned the well for later legal arguments, and goes into the category of how the best of intentions can produce the worst of results," Turley told FOXNews.com.
Because of a 1990 Supreme Court ruling on which most right-to-die legislation was built, courts are tasked with determining what the patient's wishes would be, most often based on the spouse's testimony absent written instructions. The parents' wishes or the wishes of the government cannot override what the patient would have wanted.
The Schindlers' attorneys may have known what they were up against, hence some of the more novel arguments they made as time ran out, including that Schiavo was speaking but only in the family's presence, and that her husband was abusive, an allegation that did not surface until well after the two sides of the family stopped speaking.
Napolitano predicted that the battle over Schiavo would cause legislatures and courts to re-examine the issue of self-determination to prevent more such contentious cases.
"Where it is not crystal clear what the patient would have wanted, or where there is great dispute over what she would have wanted, or where the patient inarticulately or imprecisely expressed her wishes, then courts should err on side of life," Napolitano said, adding that most people, if given the choice, would want to live in all but the most extreme instances.