Today in 2005: Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube is removed

March 18, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryIn culmination of what was one of the most famous medical guardianship legal battles in U.S. history, Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed on March 18, 2005.

The story starts in 1990, when the 26-year-old Schiavo  collapsed in full cardiac arrest.  She suffered brain damage, and after over two months in a coma, her diagnosis was upgraded to vegetative state.

The situation was relatively uneventful until 1998, when Schiavo’s husband of 14 years Michael petitioned the Florida trial court to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube.

Because Schiavo didn’t have a living will, Florida law dictated that Michael had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the removal of the feeding tube would have been what his wife wanted.  Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, opposed the action.

The court heard testimony from several different witnesses and even appointed a guardian an litem separate from Michael.

In the end, the court ruled in favor of Michael and thus entered an order to discontinue Schiavo’s artificial life support.  Schiavo’s parents appealed, and it wouldn’t be the last time.

In fact, there were a total of fourteen appeals (not to mention the plethora of other motions and pleadings) in the Florida state courts alone.

During this time, the case gained quite a bit of notoriety. What began as a case to determine the wishes of a vegetative woman turned into the latest front in the “culture war,” with several conservative and pro-life groups rallying behind the Schindlers.

After the Schindlers’ final appeal was dismissed in October 2003, Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed.  Six days later, the Florida Legislature, in emergency session, passed “Terri’s Law.”

The law gave Governor Jeb Bush the authority to stay the withholding of artificial sustenance in the face of a court order specifying otherwise.  Bush promptly ordered Schiavo’s feeding tube replaced.

The Florida Supreme Court unanimously declared the law unconstitutional in May 2004 as a violation of the constitutional separation of powers.

On February 18, 2005, the lower Florida court ordered Schiavo’s feeding tube to be removed on March 18.

At this point, the case had garnered national attention.

US CapitolIn response to the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube, U.S. Congress (although only three senators were present) passed a bill on March 21 just after midnight, and President George W. Bush, specially returning from vacation, signed it into law 30 minutes later.

The bill, which only applied to the Schindlers, compelled the federal courts to review the rulings of the Florida state courts to determine whether Schiavo’s procedural due process rights had been violated.

The bill was ineffective, as all five federal courts that heard the case affirmed the state courts’ rulings.

On March 31, 2005, Schiavo died.

There are many more significant events that occurred, notably four denials of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court.  However, the situation is so complex that there is no way to detail it all here.

Rather than having a lasting impact on the nation’s social and political landscape, the case’s legacy seems to have more weight with estate planning attorneys, since it serves as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of lacking a living will.