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US State Court Strikes Down Law Keeping Brain-Dead Woman Alive - 2004-09-24

The Supreme Court of the U.S. state of Florida has struck down a controversial law that forced the husband of a severely brain-damaged woman to keep her alive by artificial means. Florida's Governor Jeb Bush says he is considering steps to try to reverse the ruling in the case which has again focused attention on right-to-die issues in the United States.

Fourteen years ago Terry Schiavo, a then 26-year-old woman living in Florida, slipped into a coma when her heart temporarily stopped beating, possibly due to an eating disorder.

Ever since then, Ms. Schiavo has been in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state. She is able to breathe on her own and her eyes and lips move, but doctors say Ms. Schiavo's brain is dead and she will never regain consciousness. For the past six years her husband has been seeking to remove the feeding tube keeping her alive. However, Terry Schiavo's parents say they want their daughter kept alive and they have fought their son-in-law in the courts to keep the feeding tube in place.

Last year after courts 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 Terry Schiavo's parents, ordered that she be kept alive.

Now, Florida's Supreme Court has ruled against the governor, and the legislature, allowing for the possibility that Michael Schiavo will now be able to remove his wife's feeding tube. Kenneth Goodman teaches ethics at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Mr. Goodman has closely followed the case and he says it was inevitable that Florida's Supreme Court would rule in Michael Schiavo's favor.

"Ethically speaking, the ruling is spot on. Legally too, legal scholars are in agreement that a unanimous ruling that took only three weeks to render is evidence that the law was just a bad ill-conceived idea," he said.

Mr. Goodman says the medical consensus is that Terry Schiavo will never regain consciousness.

"The medical experts who looked at her, and who are not themselves partisans, are in unanimous agreement that this woman is in a permanent persistent vegetative state and has no cognition whatsoever," he said.

However, Terry Schiavo's parents and their supporters disagree. They say Ms. Schiavo's facial expressions are not involuntary, but evidence of cognition, and perhaps even emotion. The University of Miami's Kenneth Goodman says medical experts involved in end-of-life cases commonly see such reactions from close relatives of those who are in vegetative states.

"They say first this is an awful tragedy that these poor people have gotten that idea," he said. "This is actually not uncommon in cases where when you love someone very deeply, you are looking very hard for some form of interaction. Medical experts say this poor woman's cerebral cortex is full of spinal fluid. There is no one there."

Governor Jeb Bush says he is "morally disappointed" by the Florida Supreme Court ruling, and he expressed bitterness at a court system which he says gives more rights to convicted murderers facing the death penalty than to people like Terry Schiavo. The case has become politically charged, with right-to-life groups in Florida mobilizing to support Terry Schiavo's parents.

Ms. Schiavo's parents say they are trying to have Michael Schiavo removed as their daughter's legal guardian. Experts like Kenneth Goodman say courts are unlikely to support the move because of long-standing traditions that favor spouses over parents of adults in such cases.