Schiavo Autopsy Released

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By David Brown and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 16, 2005

Terri Schiavo suffered severe, irreversible brain damage that left that organ discolored and scarred, shriveled to half its normal size, and damaged in nearly all its regions, including the one responsible for vision, according to an autopsy report released yesterday.

Although the meticulous postmortem examination could not determine the mental state of the Florida woman, who died March 31 after a judicial and legislative battle over her "right to die," it did establish the permanence of her physical condition.

Schiavo's brain damage "was irreversible . . . no amount of treatment or rehabilitation would have reversed" it, said Jon R. Thogmartin, the pathologist in Florida's sixth judicial district who performed the autopsy and announced his findings at a news conference in Largo, Fla.

Still unknown is what caused Schiavo, 41, to lose consciousness on a winter morning in 1990. Her heart beat ineffectively for nearly an hour, depriving her brain of blood flow and oxygen.

A study of her organs, fluids, bones and cells, as well as voluminous medical records, failed to support strangulation, beatings, a drug overdose, complications of an eating disorder or a rare molecular heart defect. All had been offered as theories over the past 15 years. Thogmartin said the cause will probably never be known.

Schiavo died at a hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., on March 31, 13 days after a feeding tube was removed from her stomach at the request of her husband, Michael. He said she would not have wanted to live in such a diminished state.

Schiavo left no living will, and her husband's request was granted only after a long court battle culminating in a judge's order to remove her feeding tube. Her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, of St. Petersburg, Fla., opposed Michael Schiavo. They believed their daughter interacted with them, including looking at objects they held. They said they were willing to care for her indefinitely.

Over the years the Schindlers' supporters included state lawmakers and members of Congress, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), President Bush, Pope John Paul II and thousands of protesting citizens.

Yesterday's autopsy findings bring to an end one of the odder chapters in recent congressional history. It culminated with lawmakers interrupting their Easter recess to order federal courts to consider whether Schiavo's civil rights had been violated by the removal of her feeding tube. It was an unprecedented intervention into the life of a single citizen, but one that Republicans leading the effort said was necessary because Schiavo's life was at stake. The Supreme Court twice refused to intervene in the days preceding her death.

Those same GOP lawmakers said yesterday that the autopsy results do nothing to undermine their legal case.

"My concern was for due process, and due process is not a medical issue," said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.). Asked whether he had any regrets, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who visited Schiavo at the hospice in her last days, responded, "None whatsoever." He added: "If a state court decides to take the life of someone, there should be a federal review."

As the debate in Congress peaked, numerous lawmakers made long-distance assessments of Schiavo's mental capacities.


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