Terri Schiavo, the woman at the center of a nationwide debate over right-to-die decisions, died today at a Florida hospice following the March 18 removal of the feeding tube that kept her alive. She was 41 years old.
The Schiavo case, as it came to be known, centered on a dispute between Schiavo's husband, Michael, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, over the removal of her feeding tube. Michael Schiavo sought to have the tube removed, but her parents repeatedly fought to continue treatment.
Michael Schiavo was cradling his wife when she died around 9 a.m., said his lawyer, George Felos. The lawyer said Michael felt "profound emotion and loss" at Terri's death.
The bitterness between her husband and her parents continued up until the very end. According to one of the Schindlers' spiritual advisers, Michael said he did not want Terri's parents in the room for her final moments.
"And so his heartless cruelty continues until this very last moment," the Rev. Frank Pavone said. "This is not only a death, with all the sadness that brings, but this is a killing, and for that we not only grieve that Terri has passed but we grieve that our nation has allowed such an atrocity as this and we pray that it will never happen again."
Felos offered a different account of Terri's final hours. He said hospice officials asked her brother and sister to heave her room after they spent nearly two hours with her early this morning. The lawyer said Terri Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler, wanted to stay in the room with Michael Schiavo and a police officer, but Michael asked him to leave because he did not want a "potentially explosive situation."
"Mr. Schiavo's overriding concern here was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity," Felos said.
Terri received a feeding tube in 1990 after she suffered heart failure that caused severe brain damage, leaving her in a persistent vegetative state. PVS is characterized by periods of wakefulness with no apparent awareness or response to any stimulus.
Her death ends a bitter legal struggle that dragged on for seven years as Michael Schiavo sought to have his wife's feeding tube removed, saying she would not want to live in a vegetative state, and her parents fought to keep her alive. The feeding tube was disconnected twice before, but her parents were able to get the courts to order it reinserted. When it was removed a third time, on March 18, after the Florida judge handling the case ruled again that Michael's wishes should be followed, the Schinders' desperate efforts failed.
The U.S. Congress even got involved, passing a law intending to allow federal courts to weigh in, but federal justices in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court were unmoved.
Both federal courts rejected last-minute appeals from the Schindlers to intervene and order the feeding tube reinserted.
The woman's situation drew protesters to the Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice where Schiavo spent her last years. During her final 13 days there was a nonstop vigil, with demonstrators vilifying Michael Schiavo and the courts, and calling on politicians to intervene.
When word of her death reached the demonstrators, many of them burst into tears.
Reaction from many of the politicians who had supported the Schindlers' efforts to get the feeding tube reinserted came quickly.