Michael Schiavo won a series of lengthy court battles for the right to take his severely disabled wife, Terri, off life support, but now faces a new challenge from Florida lawmakers who are seeking to pass a bill that would stop him from doing so.
Terri Schiavo collapsed in 1990 and suffered severe brain damage. She has been kept alive by a feeding tube ever since and has been unable to speak or care for herself. Her parents have insisted she is not in a persistent vegetative state, as doctors appointed by the court have concluded. They also believe she would not have wanted to be allowed to die.
While Michael Schiavo has only rarely spoken to the press, he gave an interview to ABC News' Chris Bury as the bill moves through the state legislature and the day for removing his wife's feeding tube approaches.
The following is a transcript of their conversation.
BURY: Joining us now from Dunedin, Fla., Michael Schiavo and his lawyer George Felos.
Michael, you've had very little to say outside of what's been filed in the legal briefs over the last year or so. Why have you decided to come out tonight and have something to say?
SCHIAVO: The reason why I've been keeping private for the longest time ever here, I've always wanted to protect my wife's privacy. I don't like -- I didn't want to put her picture all over the news. I just wanted to keep her private.
And today, and what's going on in the legislation, is really the reason why I'm starting to speak out, because it's outrageous.
BURY: When you say the legislation, I assume what you're talking about is the bill back now in the Florida legislature, which actually passed a committee in the legislature today and could be on Governor Bush's desk by Friday, which is the same day that Terri's feeding tubes are to be removed. Is that right?
SCHIAVO: That's correct.
You know, it's really uncomprehensible to think that a private family matter that has gone through the judiciary system for the past seven years -- I mean, we're talking all the way up to the United States Supreme Court -- and for a governor to come into this without any education on the subject and push his personal views into this and have his Republican legislation pass laws so that this doesn't happen.
He's basically jumping right over the state court's decision. We might as well not have any state courts.
BURY: Just, Michael, so we can all understand the legislation -- as I understand it, this would require that before the feeding tubes could be removed from someone in a vegetative state, they would have had to have left written instructions to the effect that that was OK with that. Is that correct?
SCHIAVO: That's what they're trying to pass now, yes.
BURY: And let me ask your lawyer, George Felos: How problematic is this legislation for you?
FELOS: Chris, this is the second time this has happened.
As everyone knows, in October 2003 the governor sent armed men to Terri's death bed, took her to a hospital and had surgery performed on her against her will.
The Florida Supreme Court said that was unconstitutional, and it also said there is absolutely nothing the Florida legislature can pass that can undo the result in Terri Schiavo's case. Yet, in response to political pressure, the legislature is poised to pass another unconstitutional bill.
And not only that, it's not just Floridians' rights that are at stake, but everyone in the country. There is a bill in the United States Congress, and this bill in the United States Congress would virtually let any family member bring a federal court habeas corpus proceeding, which would tie up a case like that for years in federal court, which would make it virtually impossible for anyone to remove artificial life support.
And I want to mention, too, for everyone listening out there, this bill, filed in federal court, does not pertain just to vegetative patients. It doesn't pertain just to removal of feeding tubes. It pertains to removal or refusal of any type of medical treatment.
BURY: Just for the sake of argument, if this Florida bill moves through the legislature and Governor Bush signs it as early as Friday, does that move the whole thing back into the courts?
SCHIAVO: Well, we'll have to see what, in fact, passes on Friday.
It may very well delay implementation of Terri's rights. We certainly hope that it will not. But it is beyond any doubt that the Florida Supreme Court will once again declare such a law unconstitutional.
BURY: Michael, did Terri, your wife, leave any kind of written instructions about her wishes?
SCHIAVO: She didn't leave any written instructions. She has verbally expressed her wishes to me and other people.
BURY: She had verbally expressed them in what context exactly?
SCHIAVO: Through watching some TV program, a conversation that happened regarding her uncle that was very ill.
BURY: And how long ago was that?
SCHIAVO: Oh, we're talking -- it's now been 15 years. We're talking a couple of year, three years before this happened to Terri.
BURY: So there's no kind of written record at all. It's basically your recollection and those of other family members.
SCHIAVO: Yes, it is.
FELOS: But, Chris …
BURY: Go ahead, George.
FELOS: You have to remember that statistics show that something around 20 [percent] to 30 percent of adult Americans have written living wills. And if you're going to try to restrict families and patients from making decisions to stop artificial life support because patient declarations were oral, then the vast majority of Americans are going to be prevented from making these types of decisions.
SCHIAVO: People make these comments all the time. They talk about this with their loved ones every day. People's feedings -- tube feedings -- are stopped across this country every day.
If my wife wasn't the celeb, as everybody is calling her now, there would be no discussion in the legislation right now.
My other -- are they going to start pushing legislation for removing ventilators? Are they going to start forcing people to take chemo against their wishes?
What they're doing is, they're making the decisions for us. That's what this country is coming down to. They're going to make the decisions for us.
BURY: In this …
SCHIAVO: Big Brother is going to do that.
BURY: Michael, in the heated rhetoric that's swirling around this case and has been for a number of years now -- all kinds of charges have been flying back and forth.
First of all, do you stand to benefit financially in any way from your wife's death?
SCHIAVO: There is no money. I will receive not a penny.
BURY: You did receive something of a malpractice settlement north of $1 million at one point, is that correct?
FELOS: Well, no.
BURY: And what happened to that?
FELOS: Michael didn't receive those funds. Those were received in Terri's guardianship and it was a bank who was her guardian of the property that administered those funds.
BURY: But the question remains: What happened to those funds?
FELOS: Well, those funds have been used for Terri's medical care and guardianship expenses and costs and fees over many, many years.
Those funds are virtually gone, and Mr. Schiavo is not going to inherit or gain one penny by the result of Terri's death.
BURY: And so, Michael, who is now -- and let's get the camera over to Michael if we can -- Michael, who is now paying for Terri's case?
SCHIAVO: Actually, right now, she's listed on the indigent list for hospice. They were taking care of her. They take very good care of her.
BURY: It's got to be very expensive.
SCHIAVO: She had -- I haven't received any bills from it, so I couldn't tell you how much it would cost.
BURY: Your wife's family and their supporters have been arguing in the most graphic terms that what you are going to allow happen on Friday, in their words, is in effect condemning your wife to a cruel death by starvation.
I'd like you to address that charge from them.
SCHIAVO: That's one of their soapboxes they've been on for a long time.
Terry will not be starved to death. Her nutrition and hydration will be taken away. This happens across this country every day.
Death through removing somebody's nutrition is very painless. That has been brought to the courts many of times. Doctors have come in and testified. It is a very painless procedure.
Terry can't -- she has no cortex left. She doesn't feel pain. She doesn't feel hunger.
So what's going to happen is slowly -- her potassium and her electrolytes will slowly diminish and she will drift off to a nice little sleep and eventually pass on to be with God.
BURY: Michael, as you know, her parents have said they are willing to take on the burden of caring for her. And we want to tackle that question when we come back in just a moment.
BURY: Back now with Michael Schiavo with his lawyer, George Felos.
Michael, you're very well aware of Terri's parents' contention that, to some very limited degree, she is responsive and aware of her surroundings.
So now, I want to play, for just a second, what her father, Bob Schindler, said on this program to Ted Koppel in October of 2003.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCHINDLER: We have yea votes that would outnumber the nay votes by at least three to one.
Essentially we have close to 15 doctors that are on record with the courts stating Terry is not in a consistent vegetative state.
So we're not just out there on a lark.
We have bona fide information from a professional neurologist that Terry can recover.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURY: Michael, you heard from her father that they believe she can recover. We've also heard that she responds to her mother and responds to objects with her eyes.
What have you seen in the last 15 years?
SCHIAVO: Terry does not respond to anybody. She makes noises. She moans. She's been doing the same things for the past 15 years.
And they talk about their bona fide doctors. They have a list of doctors that signed affidavits from looking at a picture of Terry. That's where they get their information from, by looking at a picture.
And then they sign an affidavit swearing that she's not in a vegetative stage.
I'll tell you. That's a doctor you really want; they can look at a picture and make a diagnosis.
BURY: The parents also argue that you have moved on with your life, that you now have children that you're with, another woman, and that you could, essentially, divorce Terri and relinquish guardianship to them. Why don't you do that?
SCHIAVO: If I moved on with my life -- and I moved on with a portion of it -- but I still have a big commitment to Terri. I made her a promise.
And another reason why I won't give Terri back is that Mr. Schindler testified in court, at the 2000 trial, that he would -- to keep Terri alive he would cut her arms and legs off and put her on a ventilator just to keep her alive.
So why would I give her to a man that would do that to you?
BURY: As I understand it, some people have actually offered rewards. In fact, just in the last week or so, I read that someone was willing to pay you $1 million to give up your guardianship to the parents.
SCHIAVO: Yes, there was an offer. And there was an offer two weeks before that by an attorney in Boca Raton that offered me $10 million.
It's not about the money. This is about Terri. It's not about the Schindlers, it's not about the legislators, it's not about me, it's about what Terri Schiavo wanted.
BURY: I understand that that's your feeling about what your wife wanted, but knowing that you believe she is in a vegetative state and knowing that her mother and father have said they're willing to pick up the burden and carry on the cost, what is the harm to you if you agree to their wishes and relinquish guardianship to them?
SCHIAVO: Basically what I just said. Her father stated in court he would cut her arms and legs off. I'm not going to turn over Terri to a person that would do that to you.
FELOS: Chris, the fact is that Terri Schiavo is not a piece of property, not a suitcase that one person can give to another. She's an individual that has constitutional rights that have been adjudicated.
It's a constitutional right to say, "I don't want medical treatment" and the state can't force you to have it.
She may be in a vegetative state, but her dignity requires that we honor her rights and that's what this case is about now. Everyone's constitutional rights are at stake.
Jeb Bush in Florida is determined to become the George Wallace of his generation, standing on the courthouse steps saying, "We're not going to obey a court order that carries out a patient's constitutional rights."
And the thing is is that, if Mrs. Schiavo's rights are frustrated here, if the court order giving her the right to refuse medical treatment is frustrated and overturned by the governor or the legislature or the Congress, it could happen to you. It could happen in any case.
If any judicial decision is unpopular, it can be subject to being overturned by popular clamor. That's not what this country is about. That's not what individual liberty is about.
BURY: I understand fully the legal question here, Michael.
But let ask you in simply human terms. Can you understand the parents' contention, the bond that they have with their daughter, and their reluctance to let her go? Do you understand that?
SCHIAVO: You know, I have children and, you know, I couldn't even fathom what it would be like to lose a child. But you know, it's been 15 years.
They know the condition Terri is in. They were there in the beginning. They heard the doctors. They know that Terri's in a persistent vegetative state. They testified to that at the original trial.
Fifteen years -- you've got to come to grips with it sometime.
BURY: In that 15 years, what has been the most difficult aspect for you, personally?
SCHIAVO: In the 15 years? This happening to my wife.
Just because it's happened to Terri doesn't mean I don't still love her. She was a part of my life. She'll always be a part of my life.
And to sit here and be called a murderer and an adulterer by people that don't know me, and a governor stepping into my personal, private life, who doesn't know me either? And using his personal gain to win votes, just like the legislators are doing right now, pandering to the religious right, to the people up there, the anti-abortion people, standing outside of Tallahassee.
What kind of government is this? This is a human being. This is not right, and I'm telling everybody you better call your congressman, because they're going to run your life.
And I just want to say one more thing: Out of all these lawmakers, be it the Florida Senate, Florida House, the U.S. Congress, Governor Bush, President Bush -- I want to know who will come down and take Terri's place. Who wants to do that?
BURY: Michael, I can imagine many people watching this tonight and looking at you and struggling with your dilemma and wondering, if they were in a similar position, what they might do.
Based on your own experience over this past 15 years, what advice do you give to families who might have to cope with this situation one day?
SCHIAVO: Make a living will. Talk about it. Death is going to happen to everybody. Write it down.
Even if you write it on a piece of paper at home and have your family witness it, you need to write it down.
BURY: Michael Schiavo, George Felos, thank you very much for joining us tonight.
And I'll be back in a moment.