In the early months of 2005, Theresa Marie Schindler Schiavo, known as “Terri,” captured the national public spotlight—but she did not know it. Nor, at age forty-one, had she known anything of her previous fifteen birthdays. She was in what doctors call a persistent or permanent vegetative state. When patients are in a vegetative state, doctors believe they cannot experience life in any way—that they are completely unconscious. When the condition is properly diagnosed as permanent, there is no evidence that the patient can ever regain any consciousness; after fifteen years, the chance of recovery, even slight recovery, is most accurately described as zero.
While Terri's husband and her parents were initially in agreement about her care, through the years they became sharply and bitterly divided. In 1998, eight years after the collapse that caused Terri to enter a vegetative state, her husband, Michael Schiavo, began a long court battle to remove her feeding tube. Without it, Terri would certainly die. Yet Michael insisted that this—death rather than life in a permanent vegetative state—was what Terri would want.
Her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, disagreed. In court, they argued that Terri would not have wanted the feeding tube removed. When that argument failed, they challenged the diagnosis that she was in a permanent vegetative state. Then they argued, as you are allowed to do in court, “in the alternative.” That is, even if Terri was in a permanent vegetative state and at one time would have wanted to have the feeding tube removed, as a Catholic, she would have changed her mind when Pope John Paul II spoke on the general issue in 2004. These are some of the main arguments that the Schindlers made, but there were many others. Over seven years, the Schindlers exhausted every avenue of relief in the courts. Many of their methods were unconventional, and some were even of questionable propriety. But while their activities in court granted them some delay in the re-