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Congress Passes Schiavo Measure

Bush Signs Bill Giving U.S. Courts Jurisdiction In Case of Fla. Woman

By Charles Babington and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page A01

Congress gave jurisdiction over a brain-damaged Florida woman's case to federal courts early today, an extraordinary legislative move that could empower a U.S. judge to order the reinsertion of a feeding tube that a state court allowed to be removed Friday.

Voting 203 to 58 at 12:42 a.m., the House joined the Senate in approving the measure and rushing it to President Bush. He signed the bill into law at 1:11 a.m., saying, "I will continue to stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans, including those with disabilities."

Bobby Schindler, the brother of Terri Schiavo, meets with reporters at the Capitol. He said he came to Capitol Hill "to help save my sister's life." (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

Schiavo Senate Bill
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Terri Schiavo Legal Case
The Battle for Schiavo

A look at the long legal battle over whether Floridian Terri Schiavo, 41, may be taken off life support.

Feb. 1990: Schiavo suffers brain damage from heart failure.

Feb. 2000: Circuit Judge George W. Greer rules that Schiavo’s feeding tube may be removed, as requested by her husband.

April 2001: The feeding tube is removed. Two days later, Circuit Judge Frank Quesada orders doctors to reinsert it.

June 2003: The 2nd District Court of Appeal upholds Greer’s ruling to remove the tube.

Oct.: Gov. Jeb Bush files a federal court brief urging that Schiavo be kept alive. He is denied.

Doctors remove the feeding tube. The state legislature passes a bill, called "Terri’s Law," allowing Bush to intervene. He orders the feeding tube reinserted.

Sept. 2004: Florida’s Supreme Court rules that Terri’s Law is unconstitutional.

Jan. 2005: The U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear the governor’s appeal.

Feb.: Greer grants an emergency stay blocking the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube. He later sets March 18 as the day the tube may be removed.

Wednesday: House passes legislation to try to block efforts to let Schiavo die.

Thursday: Senate passes separate legislation.

Friday: House committee subpoenas Schiavo and others. Florida judge blocks the subpoenas; U.S. Supreme Court lets that ruling stand. Feeding tube is removed.

Yesterday: Senate passes legislation giving federal courts jurisdiction in the case.

This morning: House passes the same bill, sending it to President Bush for his signature.

SOURCES: Associated Press, staff reports

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With their votes and signature, the Republican-controlled Congress and Republican president wrote another chapter in an emotionally charged saga that has divided the patient's family and many other Americans over right-to-die questions.

Calling the bill a "Palm Sunday Compromise" that will keep Terri Schiavo, 41, alive, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said, "It won't take a miracle to help Terri Schiavo. It will only take the medical care and therapy that all patients deserve." In a rare gesture, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) presided over the three-hour debate, and he quoted Pope John Paul II on the subject of life-sustaining treatments.

The legislation requires a federal judge, upon the family's request, to launch a new inquiry into the legal and medical questions surrounding Schiavo, who suffered a severe loss of oxygen to her brain when her heart temporarily stopped 15 years ago. Doctors appointed by Florida courts to examine Schiavo say she has since lived in a persistent vegetative state, although other physicians have questioned that diagnosis.

The Senate, operating under unanimous-consent rules, passed the legislation yesterday afternoon with no debate and with only three members present. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a renowned heart surgeon, said Congress cannot force a U.S. judge to order that Schiavo's feeding tube be reinserted while the new federal case goes forward. However, he said, "I would expect that a federal judge would grant a stay [of the state court's order removing the tube] under these circumstances, because Terri would need to live in order for the court to consider the case."

Frist called the measure "a unique bill" that "should not serve as a precedent for future legislation." Some Democrats objected to an earlier, broader version that might have applied to many cases of incapacitated patients.

Schiavo's husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, has said that she has no hope of recovery and that, based on their conversations before her heart attack, she would not want to continue living as she is now. Florida courts have repeatedly sided with him, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals of those rulings.

Terri Schiavo's parents and siblings have fought to keep her alive, drawing many right-to-life activists and other political groups to their side. In his Senate speech yesterday, Frist denounced an unsigned memo circulated to Republican lawmakers over the weekend calling the Schiavo case "a great political issue."

Frist said he had not seen the memo, adding: "I condemn the content of the memo and reaffirm that the interest in this case by myself, and the many members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle, is to assure that Mrs. Schiavo has another chance at life."

GOP lawmakers have said Terri Schiavo's failure to draft a "living will" makes it impossible to know her wishes, and therefore it is essential that the government help her stay alive. Frist said the bill will allow Schiavo's parents to file a federal claim on her behalf "for alleged violations of constitutional rights or federal laws relating to the withholding of food, water or medical treatment necessary to sustain life."

The legislation will put a federal court in direct conflict with Florida courts, Senate aides acknowledged, a move subject to possible legal challenges whose duration and outcome is hard to predict. Republicans have urged the Florida legislature to overcome its impasse on the issue and try to override the state court's rulings, which could make federal intervention unneeded.

Schiavo's feeding tube was temporarily removed twice before under various legal maneuvers. Doctors say she probably will die from dehydration in about two weeks if the tube is not reinserted.

Michael and Terri Schiavo won a $700,000 malpractice lawsuit after her heart attack 15 years ago, but his lawyers say most of the money has been spent on health care and legal costs. Medicaid pays for her medication and Woodside Hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., provides her care for free, the lawyers say.

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