The Story of Terri Schiavo

Revision 3

March 28, 2005


For a legal timeline, click here. This timeline attempts to tell a story, after integrating many conflicting reports. It paints Michael in a more sympathetic light than most reports from those who are sickened by Terri's torture and murder. Thanks to Jacqueline Rae Gathman for information on caring for patients with a feeding tube.


15 years ago, Michael and Terri were in trouble. Michael was spending too much time with another woman and Terri was struggling with bulimia. One day she collapsed in the bathroom with a heart attack caused by potassium imbalance while "purging" after a meal. This is the leading cause of death with bulimia. Apparently, she also choked, explaining the bruises on her neck. (Some have suspected Michael of foul play, i.e. strangling, but I think this is due to demonization rather than the evidence.) Prolonged lack of oxygen to the brain resulted in extensive brain damage.

For three years, Michael and Terri's family were allies. Both believed at the time that Terri was in a PVS (Permanent Vegetative State), and brain scans confirmed this. But they continued to care for her according to Catholic belief (which forbids withholding ordinary care from anyone not on artificial life support) while they sued for malpractice.


In those three years, however, Terri had made remarkable progress. Her parents, and neurologists who examined her personally, saw intelligent choice, and an ability to see and hear behind her responses: opening and closing her eyes on request, speaking a few simple words, tracking objects mentioned verbally with her eyes. Neurologists who initially agreed with the PVS diagnosis after seeing the brain scans taken after her collapse, changed their mind after meeting her in person.

[Note - the motivations I assign to Michael are completely subjective, and based on putting myself in Michaels shoes. I hope to avoid the demonization common to most "let Terri live" accounts.] During those years Michael was full of hope. He had no illusions that Terri would ever be completely whole again, But her remarkable progress gave him the hope of being able to at least communicate with her, perhaps via blinks or eye movements. This was not what he expected when he vowed to remain faithful "In sickness and in health", but Terri's accident had actually shocked him into a renewed commitment to Terri. He envisioned spending the rest of their days sitting beside her bed, learning to improve their communication despite overwhelming impediments.

However, soon after Michael was awarded the malpractice money for Terri's long term therapy and care as her legal guardian, doctors began telling him that Terri would have no more improvements: this was the best she could do. At first he resisted, but eventually, he too despaired. His situation had become like Jane Eyre. The thought of spending the rest of his life shackled to what he would later publically call a "houseplant" was more than he could bear.

He suddenly decided to put her behind him. He put her cats to sleep, melted down their wedding rings, and cancelled all therapy. Although Terri was now able to swallow, he stopped all hand feeding and had her food delivered only via her feeding tube. (Contrary to some reports, the tube enters through the abdomen, and does not prevent speaking.) Terri had become his "mad wife in the attic". Seeing Michael's loss of interest in caring for Terri, her parents encouraged Michael to date again, in an apparent attempt to move him toward giving them custody. Michael began seeing more of his lady friend from before Terri's collapse. He did not divorce Terri, so they could not marry. But his friend was no Jane Eyre, and they began living together and bore two children during the ensuing fight over Terri.

Terri's parents began demanding that Michael spend the $700000 he had been awarded on therapy as agreed.


After nearly four years of this wrangling, Terri had a medical emergency, and was admitted to the hospital with nearly fatal low blood sugar. Her nurse testified in court that she had found Terri emotionally distraught (inconsistent with PVS, by the way), after a closed door visit with Michael. Terri then fainted. The nurse found needle marks on her body, and part of the wrapper for an insulin cartridge. The nurse also testified that Michael had said to her, "Why doesn't the bitch die!" This was not a cause for investigation, because Terri had already been found to be PVS, and because of that, Michael as her legal guardian had the legal right under Florida law to terminate her. (The insulin was certainly more humane than the means the court is using now.) [I am not a lawyer, and I am confused about what the exact provisions for PVS in Florida are, so the above is probably imprecise or wrong, but it is the best I can figure out.]

Since that didn't work, Michael asked the court to take guardianship of Terri and decide what to do with her, and obtained permission from the court to use some of the money on lawyers to defend himself. The court determined that Terri was diagnosed as PVS, and was on "artificial life support" (the feeding tube). There was no "living will", so the court called witnesses to determine what Terri's wishes were. While Florida does not allow assisted suicide, PVS is considered a kind of living death. Michael, and several other witnesses testified that Terri had said that she would not want to "live as a vegetable". Based on all this, the court decided to disconnect the "life support".

Terri's parents challenged the finding of PVS in court. The court appointed 5 experts to examine Terri - two appointed by Michael, two by her parents, and one by the court. The judge rejected the testimony of the 2 experts appointed by the parents, saying it was unconvincing. A total of 33 experts have signed avadavits challenging that finding, and claiming that Terri had progressed to MCS (Minimally Conscious State), and could likely further improve her communication with therapy. However, the court followed reasonable procedures in making the determination of PVS. The problem is that such a diagnosis can never be absolutely certain, and should not be that basis for life or death decisions.

Then Terri's parents challenged the finding that Terri would have wanted to die. They publically impugned Michael's character in an attempt to get his testimony about Terri's wished thrown out. They called attention to the woman he was seeing before Terri's accident, whom he was now living with. They suggested he just wanted the award money for himself. They even suggested, contrary to the finding that resulted in the jury award, that Terri was not, in fact, Bulimic, and that Michael might have been responsible for her collapse.

Michael and Terri's parents were now bitter enemies. For the next 8 years, they struggled. Michael spending down Terri's award money intended for her therapy on lawyers instead, Terri's parents spending their own money, supplemented by donations, on lawyers. On two occasions, Terri's feeding tube was removed, and food and water withheld, only to have the tube reinserted (and feeding resumed) after a new round of appeals. All this wrangling over the feeding tube served to give the general public the impression that Terri was dependent on the tube to survive - which is not completely true. She is capable of swallowing on her own, and able to live on a liquified diet just like any infant. However, hand feeding someone in her condition is extremely labor intensive: essentially a full time job. In such cases, a nurse will normally give some food by mouth for the patients enjoyment and to exercise swallowing ability, and the rest by tube.


On October 21, following the 2nd attempt at starvation and dehydration (with accompanying fanfare about "disconnecting tubes" to give the public the impression that Terri was dependent on some sort of machine for survival), Florida Representative Frank Attkisson saw a video of Terri on TV and said, "wait a minute, that's not my definition of somebody in a comatose situation." In a few days, they passed "Terri's law", giving the governor the authority to spare the life of any alleged PVS patient about to be terminated - just as the Governor can pardon condemned criminals. Jeb Bush immediately "pardoned" Terri, and Michael continued to petition the court to kill her.


The Florida Supreme court declared "Terri's law" "unconstitutional". It is apparently one of those inalieable rights hidden in the penumbras of the Florida Constitution, that the courts be guarranteed the right to kill anyone under their guardianship they have determined to be in a Permanent Vegetative State.

Michael's award money had been spent down to $50000 - all on lawyers. He offered this as proof that he was not in it for the money, and pledged to give all that remained to charity when Terri was finally dead. (One wonders what charity.) Judge Greer ordered the feeding tube removed for the last time. Somehow, this order also meant that a 24 hour police guard was needed to prevent anyone from giving Terri food or water. Dozens of people were arrested attempting to sneak in a drink for Terri, including 4 children as young as 10 years old.

The Florida legislature met, and passed another law requiring more scrutiny before an alleged PVS patient can be terminated. Judge Greer immediately declared it "unconstitutional", citing the aforementioned inalienable right of the court to kill.

Congress issued a subpeona to Michael and Terri, requiring them to testify before congress on the issue (thus delaying her execution). Judge Greer thumbed his nose and stuck out his tongue.

Congress met in an emergency session, and passed a law, signed by President Bush, giving advocates for disabled patients about to be terminated the right to appeal to the Federal courts. The Schindlers immediately appealed, and the Federal district court refused to hear their case. They appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court refused to hear their case.

Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida announced that he had the authority to take Terri into protective custody, and dispatched a National Guard unit to do so. However, Judge Greers police were armed, and ready to resist with force. "We told them that unless they had [Judge Greer] with them when they came, they were not going to get in." Bush decided that the situation did not warrant additional casualties and called them back, saying shortly afterward on TV that he "didn't have as much authority as people think."

Meanwhile, witnesses of the final removal of Terri's feeding tube testified before Judge Greer that Terri had uttered 4 more simple words after its removal: "I want to live". Lawyers for Michael dismissed this as "involuntary moans consistent with PVS".


Q. Who, ultimately, do the police putting Terri to death take orders from?

A. They take orders from Judge Greer. Florida Governor Jeb Bush ordered the Florida National Guard to take Terri into protective custody. However, the local police threatened to use lethal force to prevent Terri's rescue. "We told them that unless they had [Judge Greer] with them when they came, they were not going to get in." Governor Bush decided not to have more people die in the attempt to rescue Terri, and backed off. Later, on TV, Bush said, "I don't have as much authority as people think."

Q. Are they following those orders because they believe Terri is actually PVS? Or are they just afraid of losing their jobs? Or have they never considered the issue? Or have we become the New Nazis?

A. I don't know. Ask God.

Q. So is Michael killing Terri?

A. Judge Greer is killing Terri. Although Michael's testimony and petitions were instrumental in the court reaching its decision, he would not be any more able to stop her execution than Jeb Bush, should he have a change of heart. Pray for Michael. Terri's passion is taking place during Holy Week, and after she dies, Michael might feel the remorse of Judas, and seek to end his own life.

Take Home Lesson

Once you're labelled as PVS, you're a goner.

Common Media Deceptions

Terri is on artificial life support

Partly true in a technical sense. Part of the legacy of the Nancy Cruzan case was to define feeding tubes as a medical treatment rather than a basic need. Since the Judges order was the "remove the feeding tube", this seems at first glance to be removing "artificial life support". For a truly comatose patient, where this is the only means of feeding possible, this would make sense.

However, Terri has been able to swallow for 12 years, and can be and has been fed without the tube. Since hand feeding such a patient is very labor intensive, the tube is normally used for convenience. The armed police guard loyal to Judge Greer surrounding Terri is not there to prevent reinserting the feeding tube. They are there to prevent anyone giving her a drink. Dozens have been arested attempting to give Terri water, including 4 children as young as ten years old.

Even accepting the courts finding of fact that Terri is "PVS", removing the tube had nothing to do with Terri's death. The State of Florida clearly engaged in active euthanasia. I am not a lawyer, so I don't understand whether Judge Greer was writing his own laws as so many judges do these days, or whether Florida law actually provides for the active murder of anyone determined to be "PVS". If the former, Judge Greer needs to be impeached for murder. If the latter, we need to use the horror of Terri's death to spearhead demands to change such a horrible and unjust law.

Terri is braindead

Patently false. The court determined that Terri is in a "Permanent Vegetative State", which means that the higher brain is completely dead, and only the lower brain functions. That is far from braindead, which is a total lack of brain activity. Her parents are claiming that Terri is actually in a "Minimally Conscious State", which means she is aware of her surroundings, but can't communicate very well.

The court took reasonable steps to arrive at its determination of PVS, employing 1 court appointed expert, 2 experts appointed by husband Michael, and 2 experts appointed by Terri's parents. However, a diagnosis of PVS is never certain. There have been many astonishing cases of people recovering from conditions every bit as bad as Terri's.

Terri is terminally ill

Completely untrue. Terri was perfectly healthy, apart from her mental disability.

Terminally ill patients are more comfortable without food and water

This is true. Except, Terri is not terminally ill. The only thing causing her pain is lack of food and water.

Since Terri is in a Permanent Vegetative State, she feels no pain

This could be true. Except that a finding of PVS is never certain. Especially telling, is that Terri's killers found it necessary to give her morphine, despite her alleged PVS, to keep her quiet. Apparently, even her killers don't really believe she is PVS.

Terri will be in a better place once she is dead

This could be true, depending on her sprititual state. What concerns those of us left behind, however, is that by participating in active euthanasia (i.e. murder), our nation becomes more evil.

First they came for the tiny babies, but I was grown, so I did nothing.
Then they came for the babies about to be born, but I was already born, so I did nothing.
Then they came for the terminally ill, but they were going to die anyway, so I did nothing.
Then they came for the severely disabled, but I wasn't disabled, so I did nothing.
Then they came for the very old, but I was under 30, so I did nothing.
Then they came for the chronically sick, but they are a drain on the economy, so I did nothing.
Then they came for the mentally ill and the politically incorrect, but I was never a rabble rouser, so I did nothing.
Then they came for me.

Catholic Position

From discussions on the Catholic position is that removing food and water is murder even for true PVS. Removing artificial life support in the case of full brain death is permitted, but food and water are not artificial life support. That is why the Pope can annouce that withholding Terri's food and water is a grave sin (i.e. a mortal sin when committed with full knowlege), without having to establish whether she is PVS or MCS.

Note, that the courts have declared feeding tubes to be "artificial life support". Whether or not you agree with that, Terri's feeding tube is not strictly necessary, so starving her is clearly not "removing artificial life support".

The Catholic Catechism says:


2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.