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Governor Jeb Bush intervenes in “right to die” case

The case centres on Terri Schiavo, 39, who has been in a persistent vegetative state since a cardiac arrest in 1990. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, won a judgment in November 2002 that his wife’s feeding tube could be removed. He has said that his wife once told him that she would never want to be kept alive artificially. But Mrs Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have been fighting for her feeding tube to remain.

Last week Mrs Schiavo’s husband prevailed. After a court judgment on Tuesday 16 October doctors removed the feeding tube. She is expected to die some time in the next fortnight.

Governor Jeb Bush’s brief does not yet seem to have had any effect. In his brief, known as an “amicus curiae” brief (a brief provided by a disinterested adviser to the court), he argued that it might be unconstitutional to allow Ms Schiavo to die without testing her to see whether she can swallow, a test she has already failed.

Besides filing the brief he has instructed his legal staff to find out whether there is a way that the judge’s original 2002 order to remove the feeding tube could be found to be unconstitutional.

But last Friday both the circuit court judge and the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, Florida, denied the parents’ request for restoration of the feeding tube, without comment.

Most doctors, including those appointed by the courts, deem Mrs Schiavo’s condition to be permanent and irreversible.

Pressure had been brought to bear on Governor Bush by a number of pro-life organisations and committed individuals. Pamela Hennessey of Clearwater, Florida, for example, collected 40,000 signatures on an online petition asking Bush to intervene.

Diana Coleman, president of an organisation called Not Dead Yet, based in Forest Park, Illinois, which opposes the right to die movement, said, “This case threatens all people who are deemed incompetent, whether it’s due to dementia, Alzheimer’s, brain injury, or mental retardation.” She added: “What disabled people are seeing is [that] the courts will not protect us and the healthcare system will not honour our rights.”

The case has been complicated by claims from the Schindlers that shortly before her cardiac arrest their daughter had said she wanted a divorce and by counterclaims from Michael Schiavo that the Schindlers want custody of their daughter, so that they can get some of the malpractice award that he won in 1992. The award totalled $1m (£0.6m; €0.9m).

BMJ 2003;327:949 (25 October)