U.S. Supreme Court Protects Liberty by Upholding Terri Schiavo's Decision to Discontinue Medical Treatment, Says ACLU of Florida

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
March 24, 2005 12:00 am

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MIAMI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of a petition forcing the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tubes, a decision that protects the severely brain-damaged woman’s right to withdraw her own life-sustaining treatment and prevents politicians from interfering with intensely personal medical decisions.

“Terri Schiavo’s wishes were honored today by yet another court that recognized her constitutionally protected right to refuse and withdraw medical treatment,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “If the court had ruled otherwise, the nation may have taken a giant step backward in the protection of privacy and made it harder for families to make these difficult but intensely personal end-of-life decisions without the intrusion of politicians.”

The ACLU of Florida filed a 47-page brief with the High Court early this morning, asking the Justices to reject efforts to reinsert Schiavo’s feeding tube, which was removed on Friday following a court order. The brief was filed on behalf of Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband of 18 years and her legal guardian. For nearly seven years, he has fought a legal battle to carry out his wife’s choice to disconnect her feeding and hydration tubes, which have sustained her for more than a decade. Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state since she suffered cardiac arrest in 1990.

“Nowhere in his approach to this case, or in his relationship with his wife and ward, has Michael Schiavo ever underestimated the gravity of the inevitably consequence of his wife’s choice not to be forced to receive nutrition and hydration in her vegetative state,” the ACLU said in its brief. “However, as Mrs. Schiavo herself recognized when she was in a position to communicate to her husband her wish not to be forced to undergo unwanted medical treatment, there are other important values and issues at stake in this case ? first and foremost among these values is Mrs. Schiavo’s constitutionally protected liberty interest in refusing unwanted medical treatment.”

Today’s decision follows a series of recent court rulings that upheld Terri Schiavo’s wish to discontinue medical treatment. On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge James Whittemore denied a temporary restraining order that would have forced the reinsertion of Schiavo’s feeding tube. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Whittemore’s decision early Wednesday morning. Later that same day, the full appeals court also ruled that there is no legal basis to needlessly prolong this tragic saga by overriding state legal procedures in this case.

The case moved to federal court on Monday, following unprecedented action by Congress giving federal courts the authority to fully review her case. The federal bill was the second attempt by politicians to disregard Terri Schiavo’s wishes and intervene in her case. In October 2003, the Florida Legislature passed a one-time bill giving Florida Governor Jeb Bush the authority to reinsert her nutrition and hydration tubes without the consent of her husband and duly appointed guardian. The ACLU challenged the law and it was struck down as unconstitutional by every Florida court; the U.S. Supreme Court again declined to hear the appeal.

In another attempt to circumvent the courts, Gov. Jeb Bush sought a court order to allow the Department of Children & Families to take “emergency action” to reinsert the feeding tubes against her wishes.

“He concocted a way to use the machinery of state government to overrule the court judgment that we have to honor Terri Schiavo’s wishes,” Simon explained.

But before the political pressure mounted, Gov. Bush also had expressed faith in the judicial system and said he felt it was necessary to honor Schiavo’s wishes. On August 26, 2003, in a letter to a circuit court judge, he wrote: “? Our system of government has committed these decisions to the judicial branch, and we must respect that process.” He went on to add: “No one involved should be permitted to circumvent due process or the Court’s authority in order to achieve personal objectives in this case.”

“The governor was right in August 2003,” said Simon. “Nothing has changed medically. Her medical condition has been confirmed and re-confirmed, even by a Guardian Ad Litem appointed by the court and at the Governor’s insistence. Nothing has changed legally; in fact, determinations that were made in 2003 that she would not want to be artificially sustained have been upheld over and over again. What has changed is the politics of the Terry Schiavo case.”

The case is Theresa Marie Schiavo Ex. Rel Robert & Mary Schindler v. Michael Schiavo, Guardian of Theresa Schiavo. (No. 04A-825). The legal team consists of: George J. Felos, of Felos & Felos, P.A. in Dunedin, Fla., Rebecca Harrison Steele, Director, ACLU of Florida West Central Florida Office, ACLU of Florida Legal Director Randall Marshall, Thomas J. Perrelli, Robert M. Portman and Nicole G. Berner of the Washington-based law firm of Jenner & Block, and Jon Eisenberg of Oakland, CA.

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