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Transcript from CNN’s Talkback Live

(May 30, 2001)

Bobbie Battista, Sanjay Gupta

Court cases under way in Florida and California could help
clarify who can end the life of people in comas or vegetative
states. The cases of Terri Schiavo and Robert Wendland
demonstrate the difficulty of the decision to pull the plug,
especially when family members disagree.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hand it to me, Robert.
BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST: These are matters of life or death.
years ago. We’re keeping him alive artificial.
He does things. He paints. He holds my — he kisses my hand. I’ll
say, “Robert, let me hold your hand,” and he’ll hold my hand.
BATTISTA: California’s Supreme Court will soon decide whether
Robert Wendland’s wife can remove a feeding tube that keeps him
alive. Meanwhile, a Florida case pits a husband against his
in-laws over the fate of Terri Schiavo, a 37-year-woman who’s
been in a vegetative state for 11 years.
deal with brain-injured people, have seen Terri, and in their
opinion, Terri could be rehabilitated.
same noises and the same moans for 11 years now. And she does it
whether somebody’s in the room or somebody’s not in the room.
BATTISTA: Who should decide when life isn’t worth living? And do
you trust anyone to make that decision for you?
BATTISTA: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to TALKBACK LIVE.
Who will decide when your life is over? Court cases under way in
Florida and California could help clarify who can end the life of
people in comas or vegetative states. The first case we look at
today involves the court fight over Terri Schiavo, the
37-year-old woman who has been in a vegetative state for 11 years
now. Her husband wants doctors to stop feeding her. Her parents
want the feedings to continue. Bob Schindler is Terri’s father,
and he joins us today from Tampa.
Thanks very much for joining us, Mr. Schindler.
SCHINDLER: Thanks for having me on.
BATTISTA: Why is it that you want to keep Terri alive?
SCHINDLER: We think Terri is recoverable primarily. And we feel
that Terri has an opportunity to recover and rejoin society.
BATTISTA: What evidence do you have that she is recovering?
SCHINDLER: By her responsiveness. And recently, we’ve had
neurological doctors come forward and they feel the same way.
They feel that Terri could interact.
BATTISTA: And so they feel that she would recover to what level?
SCHINDLER: That’s unknown, actually. She has to go through a
therapy process, and at that point, they can make a better
determination to what level she could recover.
BATTISTA: You say that when you visit her, that she responds to
you? How does — how do you interact with her? What do you see?
SCHINDLER: Well, she responds mostly to my wife. My wife visits
her. As a greeting, she’ll smile. Her smile will go into a
laughter. And then at times, she’ll start to cry, that goes into
a sob. And my wife will comfort her. And she’s almost like
begging my wife to help her. That’s the interpretation you get
from her.
BATTISTA: Her husband Michael says that they had conversations
before her heart attack where she said that she would never want
to live in this sort of state. Do you question that now?
SCHINDLER: I think that’s very disputable.
SCHINDLER: Well, first of all, we don’t really think that Terri
would have expressed that opinion, and there’s been people that
are surfacing now that are disputing that.
BATTISTA: So even though most people, when do they have that
discussion, very often say, “I would never want to live in state
like that.” So why do you think that Terri was different? Did she
have religious convictions or…
SCHINDLER: It’s out of character for Terri. I think if you knew
Terri’s personality, just Terri is not the type of person would
even make that comment.
BATTISTA: So tell us what you know about your daughter that would
make you think she would be OK living in that state.
SCHINDLER: Well, I think she’s recoverable. I think that’s the
paramount thing. I think that we saw that years ago.
Unfortunately, she has not had any therapy to bring her back. And
on her own, she’s recovered to a certain level.
BATTISTA: And is that a unanimous medical decision, or, I mean,
have you heard both sides of the argument?
SCHINDLER: Well, the other side, naturally, the husband and the
adversaries are saying that there is no chance of recovery. But
we’re seeing from people that have visited Terri, not only from
our family but friends that have visited her that feel the same
way, people that have dealt with people in Terri’s condition —
brain-injured people that have made the same comments that feel
Terri is recoverable. And we also have neurological people that
are saying the same thing.
BATTISTA: All right, Bob, we’re going to ask you to just hang on
for just a moment now while we invite a couple of attorneys to
discuss this case.
George Felos is the attorney for Michael Schiavo, Terri’s
husband, first.
Mr. Felos, as I understand this case now, it is on hold until the
courts determine whether or not Michael’s story that Terri told
him she would not want to live like this is true or not, is that
layman’s way to put it. Where back in the appellate court, this
case had gone to trial, had gone to appeal, went to the Florida
Supreme Court. Went to the United States Supreme Court. All of
those appellate courts agreed with the trial court that Terri
can’t recover and that her wishes were not to be kept alive
And since that time, there have been allegations that were made
that my client’s testimony was not correct. But we’ve since taken
the deposition of those witnesses, and the deposition does
nothing to refute my client’s testimony. And so we believe the
appellate court, when it hears this case again on June 25th, will
again rule that Terri’s wishes should be followed.
BATTISTA: So basically, all you have is Michael’s word that that
is what Terri told him before this happened. That’s enough in
FELOS: Well, it’s not just Michael’s word. There were two other
witnesses: Michael’s brother and also Terri’s sister-in-law, who
came forward as well and said that they had conversations with
Terri under different circumstances and at different times in
which Terri said, you know, “I’d rather die than be dependent on
the care of others. No tubes for me. I don’t want to be hooked up
on machines. I don’t want to be kept alive artificially.” And so
it just wasn’t my client’s testimony, it was the testimony of
others as well.
BATTISTA: Mr. Schindler says that that is completely out of
character for his daughter. How do you respond to that?
FELOS: Well, obviously, I didn’t know Terri while she was
competent. I think, Bobbie, you raised a good point in that if
you stopped a hundred people out on the street and you asked
them, “Gee, if you were in a vegetative condition and had no hope
of recovery, would you want to be kept alive artificially?,” I
doubt anyone would say, “Sure, keep my alive indefinitely.” I
don’t think it’s — I don’t think it’s out of character for
someone to express those wishes.
BATTISTA: I need to bring up one more point. There’s a great deal
of money that is involved in this case from a malpractice suit.
That money goes to Michael upon Terri’s death. A lot of people
think this case is all about money.
FELOS: Well, the trial judge, after hearing a week of testimony
of both sides concluded that Michael Schiavo loves his wife and
is not financially motivated. The appellate court that reviewed
the record very carefully made the same conclusion that my client
is not financially motivated. And, in fact, on many occasions, my
client has said to the Schindlers: “Look, I agree to donate
whatever money I’d get to charity if you’ll let Terri’s wishes be
carried out.” And so he doesn’t have a financial interest in —
motivation in this case. His motivation is to make sure his
wife’s wishes are carried out.
BATTISTA: All right, George Felos, thank you very much for
joining us this afternoon.
With us on the phone now is Jim Eckert, who is the attorney for
the Schindler family.
Mr. Eckert, I think the thing that makes this so difficult for a
lot of people is that it’s always — you know, you seem to be
able to find doctors on both side of this argument, doctors who
say the case is hopeless and doctors who say that she does have a
chance of making some sort of recovery.
something about what Mr. Felos said. First of all, she’s not on
artificial life support. She’s not comatose. She’s not TVS (ph).
She’s alert, cognitive and responds to those she knows and cares
He talks about going to trial. She had no attorney to represent
her. He says these allegations that have come forward after and
since we’ve gotten in this case in the last month, they’re not
allegations. They’re sworn testimony found in the court file. He
says they took depositions and disputed that. They took one
deposition. The deposition of the witness supported our position
that there was no such discussion between Michael Schiavo and his
client, and he has not taken depositions as though there are more
than one. She is on no tubes, not feeding. She is not artificial.
The court had nobody to dispute her situation with respect to an
attorney to cross-examine him. And the appellate court relied
upon the record as it was. It’s always his mantra, Mr. Schiavo’s
and Mr. Felos’, to carry out Terri’s wishes. That’s baloney. His
client and he want to say to Michael Schiavo and discuss —
Michael Schiavo and Terri discuss starving his client to death or
dehydrating her into convulsions. That’s preposterous.
BATTISTA: How does anybody know whether a husband and wife has
had that sort of discussion? There usually is never a witness to
ECKERT: Well, let me explain this to you. If an attorney had
represented her, they would have objected to that testimony,
because it comes under what’s called a well-known law called the
Dead Man’s Statute. You can’t testify about what a dead person or
incompetent person testifies to if you have financial stake. The
financial stake in this case was $700,000. His second girlfriend,
Ms. Shook, who they did take the deposition of, says he kept
asking her what to do. He never said, “Terri, this or that,” but
it was all in a life context.
And another independent witness, a confidant of Mr. Schiavo’s,
Trudy Capone, who he failed to mention, says he kept asking what
to do all in a life context. And he tried in 1993 or 1994 to get
a nursing home not to give her a pill that would help her with a
bladder infection, a urinary tract infection, which would have
lead to sepsis. And he knew that that sepsis would kill her
because he was a nursing student.
BATTISTA: One last question for Bob Schindler. Do you think your
daughter ever could have imagined this kind of legal dispute and
wrangling going on over her case? Would she want something like
SCHINDLER: I think Terri is a private person. And the last thing
she would want to be would to be getting this type of publicity,
if that answers your question.
BATTISTA: All right, Bob Schindler and Jim Eckert, thank you both
very much for joining us this afternoon.
ECKERT: Thank you.
BATTISTA: We’ll have to see how this case plays out.
We’re going to take a break here in just a moment. If you were
declared brain dead, would you want life support to continue?

Take the TALKBACK LIVE online viewer vote at
live, AOL keyword: CNN. Can someone in a vegetative state
communicate? We’ll get a medical opinion on that right after
this. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BATTISTA: A couple of e-mails here. “Our justice system needs a
major overhaul in this particular area. Why can’t a person die
his or her dignity? I would want my wife to pull the plug if I
were so close to death, if there is no quality in life anymore.”
Sandy in Virginia says: “We are playing God when we interfere in
the death process by artificial life support. Pulling the plug is
deciding that those measures are no longer in the patient’s best
interest. How do we know if the patient is or is not in physical
or psychological pain?”
Let me go to three more guests this hour. Greg Parshall is with
us. He’s a trial lawyer who has appeared before the Supreme
Court. ACLU president Nadine Strossen is with us as well, and CNN
medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Welcome to all of you.
Dr. Gupta, I want to start with you quickly, which is why I was
turning to you before I introduced you. When after — I’m not
going to ask you to comment specifically on this Schiavo case,
but clearly, people that are in a vegetative state similar to
hers for 11 years, what are the chances of recovery and to what
level of recovery are we talking about here?
like absolutes when it comes to something like this. When a
doctor says that there’s possibly hope in a persistent vegetative
state, that may be true. But what we deal with a lot in medicine
is statistics. And someone who’s in a persistent vegetative
state, no significant signs of personality, of memory, of really
any of the intrinsic qualities of being that person, the chance
of recovery, a meaningful recovery is very, very small if not
BATTISTA: Meaning that if you damage parts of your brain through
lack of oxygen in that particular case, they’re not going to come
back unless, you know, we perfect a brain transplant in some way,
shape or form, correct?
GUPTA: That’s right. And I don’t know if you know that I’m a
neurosurgeon, so this is my area of expertise.
GUPTA: And again, there’s a difference between bringing someone
back and just bringing a human being back. When you think that,
you know, they’re going to recover, I think people typically
associate them recovering with them being able to interact with
you again, with them having memory, with them being able to be
that person that they were before versus someone who’s a human
being who can swallow, who has certain reflexes, who may be able
to breathe on their own, but is in no way what they were before
this all happened.
BATTISTA: Craig Parshall, is that what we want for our loved
ones? Do we want to bring people back to just that subsistence
CRAIG PARSHALL, TRIAL ATTORNEY: Bobbie, I think what we really
ought to be concerned about is the shifting standard that we’re
talking about in America. You know, many years ago, we talked
about the persistent vegetative state as being the benchmark for
when someone didn’t deserve to continue existence. Now we’re
talking in terms of, for instance Terri Schiavo or Robert
Wendland in California. These are people with minimal
Now what’s the standard going to be five years from now? Are we
going to be suggesting death for those who don’t have an adequate
sense of humor or those who can’t appreciate fine art? I’m being
ironic, obviously, but I’m concerned that there is no bright line
test that’s supported by reason or ethics. I think the line ought
to be this: When we are given a choice between life and death, we
always err on the side of life.
BATTISTA: Although — and I think this is going to bear out in
our poll question later today. You know 99 percent of the people
asked this question when they’re in a rationale state as to
whether they want to live in a state like that. Well, the answer
to that definitively no.
PARSHALL: Unfortunately, when you are in a situation where your
well-being is not threatened, where you’re not hanging on to
survival with your fingertips, in a comfortable situation, most
of us would prefer to say that we want an optimal life or no life
at all. On the other hand, that situation is deceiving because we
cannot interview those who are conscious but unable to
communicate. How can we presume to speak for them and speak for
them in such a way as to irrevocably decide for their death?
BATTISTA: Well, Nadine, that’s — you know, these are
conversations that I think all couples have at some points in
their life, you know, after they’ve seen a movie on the subject
or whatever, and they say, you know, they say, “I don’t ever want
to be in that state.” And they don’t put in writing. That’s the
big problem.
interestingly enough, has been vindicated by the United States
Supreme Court in an eight-to-one decision in 1990. And I think it
accords with much of what Mr. Parshall has said, that it is not
up to person A to make the decision for person B much less is it
up to the government. The touchstone is what the individual
himself or herself chooses as long as we’re talking about
somebody who is mentally competent. Then we can get into very
difficult factual situations, Bobbie, as to how we implement that
principle, in a particular case: What is the evidence as to what
an individual’s preferences are?
The reality is that most people do not take the trouble to write
living wills, and I don’t think that means that they should be
denied an opportunity to have their preferences honored if their
preferences have been clearly expressed in another way, for
example, through conversations with loved ones who have
BATTISTA: Let me go to the audience quickly to get some reaction.
Matt, you say you have a living will, but I must say you’re only
one of a couple of people in our audience who do.
MATT: Yes, I do. I sort of felt that it was a decision that I
wanted to make and not put a burden on my wife or my children so
that if something ever happened to me, that that decision would
be made and they didn’t have to think about the consequences.
BATTISTA: Dr. Gupta, should more weight be given you think to the
medical community? I mean, is too much of this falling into legal
hands or what do you think about that?
GUPTA: Well, it ends up being an extremely personal decision. And
I think the point is well taken made by someone at the time when
they’re able to make that decision. The medical community, I
think, hands are getting increasingly tied. On one hand, we’re
jumping to technologies that are going to prolong life even
longer than it is now, and that’s going to change even more
radically over the next few years.
On the other hand, we’re in some ways being forced to make
decisions about who can live, who should live and maybe how we
can keep them alive. And I think a lot of those questions as I
think as doctors we advise, “Listen, that person that you knew,
that person that you had memories with, that person you
interacted with will not come back.” There’s some things we can
say absolutely, but there are many things that are still in the
gray area. Will they still be alive in five years? Will they
still be alive in 10 years? Perhaps. There is hope to that, but
maybe not to bringing that person back.
BATTISTA: And to the audience quickly, and Tony.
TONY: I just think that there’s always a chance you will get
better. And who knows what will happen in five years or 10 years.
And to cut off a person’s life now seems a bit drastic.
BATTISTA: So you would take the chance?
TONY: Definitely.
BATTISTA: All right, we’re take a break here and continue in a

ANNOUNCER: About 10 percent of Americans have an advanced medical
directive, a legal document outlining their wishes in the event
of certain illnesses. That document usually contains a living
will stating what level of life preserving medical intervention
is wanted and a medical power of attorney naming the person who
will make medical decisions if the patient is unable to do so.

BATTISTA: We’re back. I got a good e-mail here, but I wanted to
ask Craig Parshall first: Is there ever a situation, Craig, where
you would think it would be appropriate to end life support or
would you always err on the side of caution?
PARSHALL: Let me say this, Bobbie. I’ve been involved in some of
these cases. As a matter of fact, I remember a case back in
Wisconsin, an elderly gentleman who really had no support system,
he went into a stroke, went into a coma. And less than seven days
later, the hospital was seeking to appoint guardian to have his
life support and his food and water deprived from him. So I have
to tell you I have yet to see a case that would warrant that.
The problem is we’re in the murky areas of fact finding. Very
often, the people who are in a position to say, “My husband said
this,” or “My father said this,” are persons who stand to gain
financially as a result their death. Now I’m not impugning
anybody’s motives, but I’m saying in a legal system, you have to
set up barriers for the fundamental protection of rights. I mean,
after all, if you view the irony here, we are affording more
protection for Timothy McVeigh, who is an acknowledged mass
murder, than we are for somebody like Robert Wendland in
California who’s minimally conscious but guilty of nothing.
STROSSEN: That’s actually not true. The state has set up very
strong procedural barriers and obstacles. In fact, many believe
that it’s too difficult for people to prove the intent and choice
of somebody to terminate life. And I completely agree that an
individual’s decision to stay alive should not be overridden but
conversely an individual’s decision to let life end, to die with
dignity also should not be overridden. California, for example,
as many other stays requires proof by clear and convincing
evidence, an extraordinarily high burden of proof which in fact
does tilt the scales in favor of life.
BATTISTA: Susan in Washington e-mails us: “We would never
withhold food from a person who was born retarded. Is it somehow
different because these people used to have a normal life? If a
person can’t breathe on their own, has no brain function at all,
or is in a terminal state and in pain, I’m all for pulling the
plug. But none of those situations exist in the case you are
describing.” I think some people might take issue with that,
though. I think they would say that Terri Schiavo doesn’t have
any real brain function.
See, this all goes to quality of life, and it’s like, how do you
define quality of life? For some people, you know, they’re fine
to lay there and swallow, and that’s it.
STROSSEN: Bobbie, it’s very subjective. And that’s why we have to
leave it up to each individual. It reflects people’s moral views,
it reflects their religious views, and to the best extent
possible, we have to honor those.
PARSHALL: Bobbie, let me say something in response to Nadine. It
does get down to individual desires. Unfortunately, it’s always
seen through the grid of a third party because the person is
incapable of communicating. Let’s talk about the Robert Wendland
case. This man came out of a coma after 16 months. After some
rehabilitation, was able to catch a ball, write the letters R and
O and operate a wheelchair. And yet his family wants him to be
deprived of food and water because he can’t articulate his need
to survive.
STROSSEN: Would you agree that if he had written a clear living
will that did apply to these situations that it should be
PARSHALL: Let me tell you the problem with that. And that is that
those people who make those written directives are usually
writing them when they are in full health and they’re not at the
edge of near survival.
STROSSEN: By definition.
PARSHALL: That’s not necessarily the appropriate time to inquire.
BATTISTA: Why is that not appropriate, Craig? Because, you know,
you’re in a rational state of mind when you make that decision,
so why is that not appropriate?
PARSHALL: Well, as an example, some people will write a will
giving everything to their son-in-law, and then three years
later, decide that was a poor decision to make but never get
around to changing that will. In fact, if you interview most
lawyers who deal with people, they aren’t very good at updating
their wills to adapt them to changing opinions or changing
STROSSEN: But under your worldview it becomes impossible to honor
a person’s wishes and we can imagine nightmare situations. In
fact, it doesn’t take imagination, that the denial of the
honoring of that kind of advance directive may force a person to
endure what in effect is torture, psychological or perhaps even
physical. And I don’t think the state should force a person to do
PARSHALL: Well, I think what I’m saying is this. I think a nation
is most judged by how it handles the least among us, those who
are unable to articulate their needs, those who are most
vulnerable, those who are oppressed and those who are
BATTISTA: I’ve got to take another break, here. And our thanks to
Craig Parshall and Nadine Strossen for tackling a difficult
subject. Dr. Gupta, thank you for coming down here and being with
us. Appreciate your expertise.
And when we come back, a right to die case in California may set
a legal precedent, the one we’ve been talking about. We’ll also
meet a man who says he defied medical science, so maybe others
can too. We’ll be back.

BATTISTA: Let me go quickly to the audience here before we move
ahead. Eldridge, you’re a lawyer, you had a comment?
ELDRIDGE: Yes, I’d just like to respond to what Mr. Parshall
said. I think the whole question about this is whether or not
someone is able to make this decision. And if someone makes the
decision while they’re living, what a better time to make the
decision? Certainly, you can’t make it if you’re minimally
conscious or even in a persistent vegetative state. So I don’t
understand where he’s coming from when he says that.
BATTISTA: All right, Eldridge, thank you. And we now turn our
attention to a case in California where a brain-damaged man is at
the center of a life-and-death court battle between his wife and
his mother. Robert Wendland’s mother says her son communicates
with her. His wife says it is time to disconnect the feeding
Joining us first is Lawrence Nelson, attorney for Robert’s wife,
Rose Wendland. Also with us is Janie Hickok Siess, an attorney
for Florence Wendland, Robert Wendland’s mother.
Mr. Nelson, let me start with you. This case, I think, people
would perceive as different from the Schiavo case because Robert
appears to be in — for lack of a better term, but in a greater
degree of consciousness than Terri Schiavo is. You argued this
case this morning before the California Supreme Court. What is
the argument to end his life?
the argument is that Mr. Wendland would not want to live in a
condition like this. Four different witnesses at the trial, his
wife, his daughter, a friend of the family and his own brother
all agree that Robert would never want to live in the kind of
condition he is in today.
BATTISTA: So, again, it’s just one of those cases where it’s
going on verbal conversations between family members?
NELSON: That’s what — that’s what almost all Americans do. They
very rarely write their wishes down or make them that express.
But in this case, all the close family agree that Robert’s wishes
were very clear: he would not want to live in the terribly
debilitated state he’s in today.
BATTISTA: And, Ms. Siess, why does his mother disagree?
disagree with Mr. Nelson. Not all of the close family members
believe that Robert would want to die. His mother and sister,
specifically, who are my clients, believe that he would want to
live, as do his remaining siblings, aside from the one brother
who has supported Rose. There has been some testimony at trial
from Rose and her witnesses about Robert’s statements, but the
court found that they were not specific enough to allow her to
bring about his death.
BATTISTA: What are the chances for Robert’s recovery, if any?
SIESS: Robert’s not going to recover, he’s always going to be a
disabled person. But it’s our contention that even though you’re
disabled, you still have a right to life and a right to your
continued life in this country.
BATTISTA: When you say disabled, what do you mean by that,
though? SIESS: Robert is cognitively disabled. He has suffered a
catastrophic brain injury so that he doesn’t speak and he doesn’t
take food and fluids by mouth. He does has cognitive function,
and that’s not disputed. He does perform some tasks and he does
respond to commands and interact with his environment.
Now, there’s dispute about to what extent — and what meaning all
of that has in a legal sense. But, the fact is that he’s not in a
persistent vegetative state or comatose.
BATTISTA: So, Mr. Nelson, if we can — in a way, it sounds to me
like Robert’s a bit like a 1-year-old or a 2-year-old. I mean, if
he has — would you say it’s that high or not?
NELSON: Well, that’s difficult to say. Our view is that Robert
has, just in the literal sense, a minimum amount of
consciousness. He cannot speak, he cannot communicate. He doesn’t
recognize his loved ones. In fact, the independent medical
experts who were retained in this case found that he really
expresses nothing other than irritation, aggressiveness,
irascibility. Three weeks ago he bit a nurse who was washing his
BATTISTA: Ms. Siess, is there a — obviously, a slippery slope
you’re concerned about here — as Craig Parshall was also about,
you know, do we get to the point where, not quite what Craig was
talking about, but, I mean, where we’re putting advanced
Alzheimer’s patien