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Florida Right-to-Die Case Goes to Federal Courts

A long-standing family dispute over the fate of a brain-damaged woman in the southern state of Florida is now in the hands of the U.S. federal court system. The case of Terri Schiavo had long been argued in state courts in Florida, but thanks to the unusual intercession of the Republican-led U.S. Congress, her fate is now in the hands of federal judges.

Doctors say 41-year-old Terri Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state since she suffered brain damage from a heart attack in 1990, and has no hope of regaining consciousness.

Her husband, Michael, says his wife would not want her life extended, and a state judge in Florida granted his request on Friday to remove the feeding tube that has been keeping her alive.

But Terri Schiavo's parents and her siblings believe that she does respond to them and that her condition could improve over time. They disagree with the state court rulings and are continuing the fight to keep her alive.

Her brother, Bobby Schindler, spoke on NBC's 'Today' program.

"It is barbaric, and to have to sit here and watch my parents watch their child being slowly starved to death for no reason,” he said. “She is simply disabled."

Led by conservative Republicans, Congress took the extraordinary step of passing a law that applies only to Terri Schiavo, demanding that Terri Schiavo's parents be allowed to petition federal courts in an effort to keep her alive.

Texas Congressman Tom Delay is the leader of majority Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"We, as Congress, have every right to make sure that the constitutional rights of Terri Schiavo are protected, and that is what we are doing," said Mr. Delay.

The congressional action drew praise from President Bush, who quickly signed the measure into law.

"This is a complex case with serious issues,” said Mr. Bush. “But in extraordinary circumstances like this it is wise to always err on the side of life."

Michael Schiavo told CBS television that he resents the effort by the U.S. Congress to prevent state courts in Florida from ordering the removal of his wife's feeding tube.

"These are Terri's wishes,” he said. “This is about Terri. It is not about me, not about her parents and not about Congress."

Opposition Democrats appear split on the Terri Schiavo case. While several supported the Republican-led effort to steer the case into the federal courts, others opposed the move.

Democrats who opposed it argued that state courts have traditionally decided such cases, and that legislative involvement in the judicial branch undermines the separation of powers provisions in the U.S. Constitution.

Jim Davis is a Democratic congressman from Florida.

"There is a reason why our forefathers created three branches of government,” said Mr. Davis. “Congress is about to overturn the separation of powers by disregarding the laws of Florida, the decisions of a judge that have never been reversed on appeal. The United States Congress is on the verge of telling states and courts that their decisions and rules do not matter."

Robert Gasper of Texas and his family maintain a vigil outside Pinellas Park hospice where brain-damaged Terri Schiavo lies with her feeding tube removed
But Republican congressional leaders insist they are responding to growing public support for what they like to call a culture of life that opposes abortion and supports extraordinary medical efforts to keep people alive.

Larry Sabato is a political expert at the University of Virginia. He says Republican majorities in both the House and Senate are sensitive to conservative religious voters, who want to be heard on what is known as the right to die issue.

"In the end, the Republicans depend upon the conservative Christians to get out their vote, and they are a big piece of the vote for the Republican Party,” he noted. “If they do not act on this cause celebre, then, inevitably, conservative Christians will become disillusioned with the Republican Party, and at that point, Republicans will lose."

The congressional intervention in the Schiavo case also raises significant questions about the evolving powers of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the U.S. government.

Nathaniel Persily is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He spoke on MSNBC television.

"This is fundamentally a question about who is going to decide [her fate]? Are you going to have the husband, or are you going to have the parents decide? Are you going to have the state courts, or the federal courts, or Congress, or are you going to have the courts decide this? So it cuts to the core of our constitutional system, and [the question of] who is going to make these decisions," he explained.

Republican leaders say that the congressional involvement in Terri Schiavo's plight is an isolated case. But some Democrats say they fear Congress has set a precedent that could lead to a rivalry between lawmakers and the courts in future similar cases.