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Will Habeaus Corpus Save Terri's Life? | Valerie Schmalz

Updated March 4, 2005 | 6:45 pm EST

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Two weeks before a Florida judge’s ruling would withdraw food and water from a severely brain-damaged woman, fifty-two U.S. House members have agreed to co-sponsor a bill that would invoke the English common law protection of habeas corpus to save Terri Schindler Schiavo.

The dramatic legal maneuver proposed by Florida Rep. Dave Weldon would expand the Habeas Corpus Act to when a state court orders denial of food or fluids to a legally incapacitated person. Weldon’s actions energized national pro-life groups. The National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council immediately urged supporters to lobby Congress to pass the bill.

"Actually, I am only trying to get her the same benefits as a death row inmate," Weldon told IgnatiusInsight. "He has sentenced her to death."

The Florida Republican said he would introduce the Incapacitated Person’s Legal Protection Act March 8th. Weldon said he believes the legislation can pass Congress before the March 18th date set by a state circuit court judge to withdraw food and water from Schiavo. Eight of the 52 House co-sponsors are Democrats, 44 are Republicans, he said. A Senate version is in the works, he said.

Under Habeas Corpus, a federal court can intervene when a state court appears to have unjustly constrained a person’s liberty, a medical ethicist for the National Right to Life Committee said.

"Congress can act to ensure a federal court hearing on whether or not Terri will die of starvation and dehydration," said the NLRC’s Lori Kehoe. A writ of habeas corpus, protected by the U.S. Constitution, dates to pre-Colonial England and is used to give those a hearing whose liberty has been constrained by state courts in violation of the Constitution or federal laws.

For seven years, Terri’s guardian and husband Michael has worked to get her gastric abdominal tube removed, saying she would not want to be kept alive, despite strong objections from her parents and siblings. Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer has handled the case from the beginning and has twice before authorized removing her feeding tube. On Feb.25, he set a March 18th date to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube.

"I’ve taken care of a lot of patients like her," said Weldon, who practiced medicine as an internist for fifteen years. "She is not vegetative. She is not persistent vegetative. She’s had no physical therapy and on speech language therapy since 1993. She vocalizes. She smiles. I would never sign a medical order to withdraw food and water in these circumstances. I believe it would be medical malpractice."

Meanwhile, in Florida, at the request of local media, the state circuit court handling the Terri Schiavo case unsealed the complaint from the Florida Department of Children and Family Services at the request of the Tampa Tribune and Tampa-St. Petersburg News Channel 8. The state agency said in its request for a 60-day stay that credible new reports alleging abuse against Terri Schiavo as a disabled adult make it imperative that her feeding tube not be removed until an investigation is completed.

Schiavo’s attorney already plans to take her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending Schiavo’s religious liberties are being violated by the state court ruling. A number of other motions have been filed by the Schindlers.

The Vatican and the Florida Catholic Conference pleaded for Terri Schiavo’s life. On Feb. 27th, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said, "If Mr. Schiavo succeeds in legally causing the death of his wife, this not only would be tragic in itself, but it would be a grave step toward the legal approval of euthanasia in the United States."

On Feb. 28th, the Florida Catholic Conference issued a letter signed by the eight Florida bishops, saying: "No longer able to speak on her own behalf, Mrs. Schiavo is a defenseless human being with inherent dignity, deserving of our respect, care and concern."

They went on, "We reiterate our plea that Mrs. Schiavo continues to receive all treatments and care that will be of benefit to her."

The attorney for Michael Schiavo told the Tribune Weldon’s bill is political haymaking. "We had a [Roman Catholic] cardinal make a statement the other day, so certainly it's not surprising a congressman wants to get into the act," George Felos, a well-known right-to-die advocate, said March 3rd. "It's just amazing how the politicians blow with the wind here."

Terri Schiavo collapsed in 1990 at age 26 and suffered brain damage but her parents and many medical experts say she continues to interact with them. Pope John Paul II declared in March 2004 that removing a feeding tube is "euthanasia by omission" even in the case of patients judged to be in a "persistent vegetative state."

Michael Schiavo lives with another woman, with whom he has two children, and has blocked attempts to spend a $1 million award on rehabilitation therapy for his wife, even though the award was based on testimony that the money would be spent on her therapy. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of the award have gone toward paying an attorney working to cut off her food and water. She is kept in a room with the shades down, at his order, and he prohibits her parents from taking her outside and doesn’t allow nursing staff to attempt to spoon-feed her, according to her family.

Michael Schiavo’s claims that Terri Schiavo would want to die are based on a conversation he recalled late in the day, Weldon noted. "It’s very suspicious," the Florida Congressman said, noting that Michael Schiavo halted all treatment in 1993 after the malpractice award. "Her husband never made these claims until a very large medical malpractice award was made which I believe impeaches that claim," Weldon said. "The purpose of the malpractice award was to provide for her care."

Related Links:

• John Paul II on "Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas"
The Case of Terri Schiavo: When Does Dignity End? | By Fr. Michael Black
The Battle Over Terri | Valerie Schmalz
DCF's Schiavo Petition Unsealed | The Tampa Tribune (Friday, March 4, 2005)

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.

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