The Legacy of Terri Schiavo; One Woman's Journey from Marital Bliss to Medical Darkness-And the Forces That Made Her Story a Political and Ethical Watershed

Newsweek, April 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Terri Schiavo; One Woman's Journey from Marital Bliss to Medical Darkness-And the Forces That Made Her Story a Political and Ethical Watershed


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CORRECTION: In "The Legacy of Terri Schiavo," we said that Karen Ann Quinlan's feeding tube was removed in 1985. Quinlan was hooked up to a respirator, not a feeding tube, and the respirator was removed in 1976. She remained comatose and connected to a feeding tube until her death in 1985. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.

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Byline: Arian Campo-Flores (With Rebecca Sinderbrand and Anne Underwood in New York, Holly Bailey and Tamara Lipper in Washington, T. Trent Gegax in Pennsylvania, and Lynn Waddell and Prakash Gandhi In Florida Graphic by Josh Ulick)

CORRECTION APPENDED

In the end, Terri Schiavo's bitterly divided family couldn't even agree on what she looked like as she slowly died. Late last week her loved ones visited her bedside at the Woodside Hospice House in Pinellas Park, Fla., where the feeding tube that kept her alive was removed one week before. They caressed her luminous skin and squeezed her gnarled hands. According to her parents and siblings, who had fought unsuccessfully to keep the tube connected, Schiavo resembled an Auschwitz survivor, her cheeks sunken and her lips desiccated by dehydration. She seemed full of torment, said a family spokesman.

"It was as if she was pleading with her mother for help." But in the scene described by her husband's family, which had battled to cut off Schiavo's nourishment, she appeared to be quietly and serenely slipping away. "She's very peaceful," said her brother-in-law Brian Schiavo last week. "Her wishes are being carried out."

No one will ever know what Terri Schiavo's true wishes were. She never left a written directive explaining what to do in the event that she lapsed into a vegetative state, as she did 15 years ago after her heart stopped. But one thing is certain: Schiavo would never have wanted her loved ones to rip each other apart, as they have for more than a decade. And she surely would have shuddered at the sight of the ghoulish spectacle that her ordeal became.

The seven-year legal battle that pitted her husband, Michael Schiavo, against her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, was the longest-running of any right-to-die case ever in the United States--one that drew in countless judges in both state and federal courts before finally concluding with the decision to terminate her life support. Along the way, what might have remained a private tale of warring egos collided with a polarizing political debate over the "culture of life." The resulting conflagration culminated in an unprecedented mobilization of powerful actors--including the Florida governor and Legislature, the Congress, the president, the Vatican and scores of activist groups--all struggling over the fate of one disabled woman entirely unaware of the commotion surrounding her. In the aftermath, the public will have big issues to deliberate, like the case's effect on the separation of powers and the partisan divide cleaving the country. But the Schindlers and the Schiavos will have to grapple with something much more intimate: the void left by a beloved woman whose life was clipped short just as it was starting to blossom.

Terri Schiavo grew up in a middle-class subdivision outside Philadelphia as the oldest of three kids. An animal lover who was shy and insecure about her weight, she had more hamsters and birds than friends. By 1981, in her senior year at an all-girls Roman Catholic high school, she had reached as much as 250 pounds--at which point she went on a NutriSystem diet and quickly lost about 100 pounds. Soon thereafter, she met Michael Schiavo at a community college, and he asked her out. "She fell for the first guy who came along and paid any attention to her," her sister Suzanne told NEWSWEEK in 2003. After dating for five months, the couple got engaged. They married in 1984 and eventually moved to Florida, where Michael worked as a restaurant manager and Terri as an insurance-claims clerk. …

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