Thompson's Daughter's Death Informs Right-to-Die Stance

Thompson says end-of-Life decisions should not become "political football."


Oct. 22, 2007 — -- In a moving, pointed and rare response to a question about the Terri Schiavo controversy, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee Monday afternoon described details of the death of his own daughter, Elizabeth "Betsy" Thompson Panici, and said that neither federal nor local governments should play any role in making a family's end-of-life decisions.

"I had to make those decisions with the rest of my family," Thompson said. "And I will assure you one thing: No matter which decision you make, you will never know whether or not you made exactly the right decision."

GOP hopeful Thompson said that "making this into a political football is something that I don't welcome, and this will probably be the last time I ever address it. It should be decided by the family. The federal government -- and the state government too, except for the court system -- should stay out of these matters, as far as I'm concerned."

Betsy Panici died in January 2002 at the age of 38 from a brain injury following cardiac arrest after what was deemed an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. The death of Thompson's only daughter from his first marriage is said to have devastated the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-politician, and friends say it played a major role in Thompson's decision not to seek re-election two months later.

In June 2002, Thompson, who in 1985 divorced his first wife and the mother of his three children, including daughter Betsy, married political consultant Jeri Kehn. Their daughter, Hayden, was born in 2003, and their son, Samuel, was born just last year.

Last month during a sojourn to Florida, Thompson begged off a direct answer when asked if Congress had overstepped its bounds in March 2005 by preventing Schiavo's feeding tube from being removed, per court orders and the desires of her husband, Michael Schiavo. "Local matters, generally speaking, should be left to the locals," Thompson said last month. But since Thompson also said, "I don't remember the details of the case," many in the media covered his answer as if he had slept through what was a national frenzy in 2005.

"Obviously, I had heard about the Schiavo case," Thompson said Monday afternoon after touring the Port of Tampa, when a local reporter asked him if he wanted to revisit his answer from September. "I had to face a situation like that on a personal level with my own daughter. I know this is bandied about as a political issue, and people want to make it such and talk about it in the public marketplace a lot. I am a little bit uncomfortable about that, because it's an intensely personal thing with me. These things need to be decided by the family."

Schiavo, whom doctors described as having been in a persistent vegetative state, died March 31, 2005. Despite medical evidence, her parents, brother and many in the religious community insisted she had some cognition.