Who Speaks for Terri Schiavo? ; Appeals Are under Way after a Judge Refused Early Tuesday to Reinstall a Feeding Tube, in a Case with Broad Legal Implications

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Boiled down to its essence, the ongoing legal dispute over a severely brain-damaged Florida woman might well have been filed in court under the label Theresa Marie Schiavo v. Theresa Marie Schiavo.

Both sides in the life-or-death drama unfolding in a Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice and federal courtrooms are claiming to be acting in what they believe to be Terri Schiavo's best interests.

Yet only one of those parties can be right. The other, while acting with the best intentions, is misrepresenting Ms. Schiavo.

It is this aspect of attempting to know the unknowable - what Schiavo herself would want in this instance - that has perplexed much of the nation in water-cooler debates and kitchen-table discussions.

The debate is more than simply right-to-life versus right-to- die. Legal analysts say Schiavo's struggle is playing out along the same cultural and ideological fault lines that split the nation over abortion, stem-cell research, and evolution.

To some it comes down to a belief in miracles and the miracle of life. To others it is the imagined horror of life in a body that will not respond to thought.

"This case is a piece of the continuing conflict between science and faith," says Alan Meisel, director of the Center for Bioethics and Health Law at the University of Pittsburgh.

On the positive side, the case has helped educate Americans about the importance of living wills. But rather than uniting the nation, the Schiavo case has increasingly divided and polarized the country, analysts say.

By intervening this week on behalf of Schiavo's parents, Mary and Robert Schindler, Congress has given new momentum to a movement of lawyers who are seeking to litigate their right-to-life perspective in right-to-die cases. One key obstacle for these lawyers has been that they often lack the necessary legal standing to insert themselves into such cases.

That is the importance of Congress's Schiavo law, and potentially its constitutional Achilles' heel, legal analysts say. It granted standing to Schiavo's parents, created federal court jurisdiction in a state court matter, and ordered the federal courts to consider the parents' claims.

During many years of litigation in the Florida courts, state judges have ruled that Mrs. Schiavo's husband, Michael, should serve as her guardian. In addition, the Florida courts have reached a legal judgment that Schiavo would prefer to end her life rather than continue living in what the courts say is a persistent vegetative state. Mrs. Schiavo's parents disagree with these findings. But they have been unable to convince any Florida judges to overturn them.

Some legal analysts say regardless of how the federal courts respond, the congressional action is dangerous because it undermines the finality of state court decisions and suggests that politicians can insert themselves into an individual's private medical affairs in ways that may clash with the views of that individual or other family members. …