TAMPA, March 22 -- Terri Schiavo's parents tearfully made appeals to Congress, the Florida legislature and the legal system Tuesday to block the court orders that have stopped doctors from resuming the tube-feeding of their severely brain-damaged daughter.
Mary Schindler collapsed weeping into husband Robert Schindler's arms outside their daughter's hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., as an appeals court in Atlanta began considering whether to overrule the federal judge in Tampa who decided Tuesday that a measure Congress passed early Monday did not require him to order the tube reinserted. She pleaded with Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee to intervene.
Terri Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, with daughter Suzanne Vitadamo, left, and husband Robert Schindler, second from right, talks to reporters.
(Carlos Barria -- Reuters)
"Please, senators, for the love of God, I'm begging you, don't let my daughter die of thirst," Schindler said.
Congressional leaders -- who have begun to experience some political fallout from the new law, though the long-term effect is uncertain -- said they were disappointed with the federal court ruling and are looking for other ways to save Schiavo's life. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called Tuesday "a sad day for all Americans who value the sanctity of life." He sent a letter to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) urging him to push for a last-minute intervention by the legislature, which last week was unable to pass a bill intended to keep Schiavo alive.
"Federal action should not be her only remaining option," Frist said. "The extraordinary nature of this case requires that every avenue be pursued."
Time is working against the Schindlers. Their daughter's feeding tube was removed Friday, and their lawyer, David Gibbs, said she is "fading quickly." Her feeding has been stopped twice before, including a six-day stretch in 2003, and doctors say she could live as long as two weeks or die within days.
The Schindlers are placing their hopes in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which has been involved in some of the most celebrated legal cases in recent U.S. history, including the battle over young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez and the George W. Bush-vs.-Al Gore presidential election case. A randomly selected three-judge panel will decide the Schiavo case, but in keeping with court rules designed to prevent lobbying, the judges' identities will not be revealed until their decision is made public.
The appeals court did not indicate when it might rule, but George Felos, the attorney for Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, told the Associated Press that he expected a decision before daybreak Wednesday.
The court is generally considered middle-of-the-road ideologically, or leaning slightly to the right. But it has shown a willingness to rule against popular conservative causes, twice rejecting appeals by lawyers trying to prevent the removal of a two-ton Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Supreme Court building and refusing a Republican motion in 2000 to stop manual ballot recounts in Florida.
One of the judges, William H. Pryor Jr., who was appointed during a recess to avoid a Democratic filibuster, was named by President Bush. Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary, said Tuesday that the White House is hoping for "relief through the appeals process." Eleven judges, including the court's part-time senior status judges, were appointed by Republican presidents and seven by Democratic presidents.
The Schindlers' appeal is built on a contention that U.S. District Judge James Whittemore in Tampa misinterpreted the meaning of the For the Relief of the Parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo Act, which Congress passed in an overnight session last weekend. Gibbs wrote that Whittemore's decision not to resume Schiavo's tube-feeding during a federal review of her case rendered the new law an "exercise in futility . . . a vain and useless act." Gibbs said that Whittemore ignored the touchstone element of the law, which calls for a new review of the case, and instead relied on seven years of "fatally flawed" state court findings.
The ruling drew a similar assessment from congressional leaders, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the chief backer of the new law. "Congress explicitly provided Terri Schiavo's family recourse to federal court, and this decision is at odds with both the clear intent of Congress and the constitutional rights of a helpless young woman," he said.
At the same time, Republican strategists were growing concerned that negative public opinion polls may indicate congressional Republicans made a costly political blunder.
"When you passed the bill into law, you expected to win," said a Republican aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was involved in negotiations over the measure.