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Congress, Judges Wrangle in Controversy Over Brain-Damaged Woman


A court-ordered deadline to remove a feeding tube from a brain-damaged woman in the U.S. state of Florida was reinstated on Friday. The order was briefly suspended earlier on Friday after the United States Congress intervened in the case.

The case of Terri Schiavo took several twists and turns on Friday when a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives issued subpoenas to her and her husband Michael to appear at a congressional hearing later this month. The action prompted a brief postponement of the removal of a feeding tube keeping Terri Schiavo alive.

Congressional Republicans like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay say they acted to save Terri Schiavo's life. "All I know is Terri is alive, and this judge in Florida wants to pull her feeding tube and let her starve for two weeks. That is barbaric," he said.

However, the order was reinstated by a Florida Judge who has ruled consistently in favor of Terri Schiavo's husband Michael, who has been seeking to remove his wife's feeding tube for more than a decade.

The Florida woman has been in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state for 15 years after her heart temporarily stopped beating, possibly due to an eating disorder.

Terri Schiavo's husband and her parents have been fighting each other in Florida courts about whether she should be kept alive. Terri Schiavo's parents say their daughter's changing facial expressions are not involuntary, as medical experts say, but evidence of cognition and even emotion.

Kenneth Goodman who is the director of the Bioethics program at the University of Miami has followed the case closely. He says such reactions from close relatives in end-of-life cases are not unusual, but medical experts who have examined Terri Shiavo say she will never regain consciousness.

"There is no cognition in this poor woman,” he said. “There is nothing going on in her poor head. It is a tragedy and it has torn a family apart but the medical facts are not in dispute among credible physicians. She is in a persistent vegetative state. The fact of the matter is that her cerebral cortex is full of spinal fluid. She is incapable of experiencing or thinking anything."

Nearly two years ago, after a court ruled that Mr. Schiavo had the legal right to remove his wife's feeding tube, Florida's legislature passed an emergency measure allowing Florida's Governor, Jeb Bush, to intervene in the case. Mr. Bush, a staunch supporter of Terri Schiavo's parents, ordered that she be kept alive.

However, Florida's Supreme Court ruled against the governor, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, clearing the way for Michael Schiavo to remove the feeding tube. Kenneth Goodman of the University of Miami says the case, and its seemingly never-ending appeals has now become a political issue.

"I do not think the country has seen anything this extraordinary,” he added. “This is in the realm of health care, the most litigated case ever. This case has bounced up and back through the courts over a long period of time. The worst thing about it is that it is driven by distinctive facts of a family dispute and a bunch of partisans who have managed to push all the right buttons."

Mr. Goodman says the practice of people being able to refuse medical treatment through their spouse, something he says has been a long-accepted practice in the United States, is now being called into question, and even challenged in U.S. courts.

Experts say without her feeding tube it could take a week, or longer for Terri Schiavo to die. Florida politicians and Congressional supporters of her parents have vowed in coming days to enact emergency legislation, and file appeals in Federal Courts to have Terri Schiavo's feeding tube reinstated before she dies.

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