Terri Schiavo's faith rights must be protected, attorney argues

by Joni B. Hannigan, posted Thursday, July 29, 2004 (14 years ago)

CLEARWATER, Fla. (BP)--Citing Terri Schiavo's right to freely exercise her religious faith, her parents' lawyer has added a new twist to the case by arguing that removing the 40-year-old disabled woman's feeding tube would be in direct violation of her religious beliefs.

The motion by attorney Pat Anderson draws on a speech by Pope John Paul II, leader of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide. Terri Schiavo would "not want to commit a sin of the gravest proportions by foregoing treatment to effect her own death in defiance of her religious faith's express and recent instruction to the contrary," the motion argues.

A resolution on euthanasia adopted by messengers to the 1992 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Indianapolis also is cited in the motion.

Terri Schiavo collapsed under mysterious circumstances in 1991. Since then some doctors have said she is in a "persistent vegetative state."

Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, disagree with that diagnosis and have said she has never received the rehabilitation doctors recommended.

Michael Schiavo, Terri's estranged husband and legal guardian, has tried for nearly a decade to have her feeding tube removed so she can "die with dignity." He has insisted she would not want to be kept alive, although her priest and her parents have said she would not wish to be euthanized.

The motion filed by Anderson on July 20 asks Florida's Sixth Judicial Circuit Court to reconsider its Oct. 21, 2003, order authorizing Michael Schiavo to sue Gov. Jeb Bush for authorizing "Terri's Law," which provided re-insertion of a nutrition and hydration tube previously ordered removed by the court at the wishes of Michael Schiavo. The case is before the Florida Supreme Court where oral arguments are scheduled Aug. 31.

Circuit Court Judge George Greer ruled less than a week later that legal counsel for Terri Schiavo's parents can depose her estranged husband Michael under oath, in the first deposition since 1999, LifeNews reported July 27.

Anderson, as the Schindlers' attorney, also will be allowed to question Jodi Centonze, Michael's live-in fiancee since 1997 and the mother of two children with Terri's husband, according to LifeNews.

The depositions will involve the Schindlers' request for a new legal guardian to be appointed for Terri Schiavo.

"Since 1999, a number of developments have come to light that have prompted the Schindler family and their legal representatives to call for the removal of Mr. Schiavo as Terri's guardian," the Schindlers said in a statement after the ruling. The Schindlers have pointed to Michael Schiavo's refusal to use money from a $700,000 medical malpractice award for medical care or rehabilitative treatment for Terri. As a result of the lack of care, they say, her health has deteriorated and five of Terri's teeth had to be extracted recently.

The parents also contend that Michael Schiavo has abrogated his duties since 2001 by failing to comply with a Florida statute requiring guardians to establish an annual medical care plan for patients under their watch.

Earlier in July, Greer dismissed a legal motion that would have required Michael Schiavo to prove that he is still qualified to make her medical decisions, LifeNews reported.

Greer has not made a final decision on the Schindlers' request for a change in guardianship.

The pope, in a speech to an international congress in March, said in part: "I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act."

The 1992 SBC resolution used as Exhibit B in the motion stated opposition to "efforts to designate food and water as 'extraordinary treatment.'" Messengers urged that "nutrition and hydration continue to be viewed as compassionate and ordinary medical care and humane treatment."

Decrying the use of the term "vegetable" regarding a human being, the pope also said in his speech that "a man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a 'vegetable' or an 'animal.'"

Anderson's motion contended that "great deference" had been given to the notion that Terri Schiavo would wish to die if incapacitated. Even if that were the case, Anderson noted that the pope's clarification on the issue would have given Terri clear guidance.

Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, told reporters July 20 that the papal argument is "legally preposterous."

"Terri Schiavo has had no cognition, no thought ... for 14 years," Felos said, according to the Tampa Tribune.

Affidavits filed with the motion include testimony by both of Terri's parents and a family friend, Frances L. Casler, describing Terri as a "practicing Catholic" who attended Catholic school from elementary through high school, went to mass nearly every week and was taught to "respect the Pope and the teachings of the church."

Mary Schindler said in the affidavit that Michael Schiavo, who is not Catholic, and Terri were married in the Catholic church after Michael was given a special dispensation to marry Terri after the couple received prenuptial counseling.

"Terri was a gentle spirit, but firm in her Catholic faith," Mary Schindler said. "There is no question in my mind that Terri had not fallen away from her faith at the time of her collapse."

Bob Schindler said in his affidavit that although Terri attended church regularly and even made a special gesture of dedication during the celebration of their nuptial mass, Michael Schiavo made "derogatory or condescending comments" about Terri's devotion.

In a November 2003, interview with Florida Baptist Witness, Bob Schindler recounted a similar story about Michael Schiavo.

"Michael used to laugh when Terri went to mass with us," Schindler said. "He would say, 'Say some prayers for me.'"

In their affidavits, the Schindlers said their daughter attended mass with them in St. Petersburg on Saturday afternoons before her collapse, although she apparently did not involve her husband, who worked as a night manager in a restaurant.

"I cannot imagine that Terri would go against the pope on this issue," Mary Schindler said. "Removing her feeding tube without any consideration for her religious beliefs is, in my opinion, grossly improper and is a denial of her religious liberty and her right to freely practice her religious beliefs."

In an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness, Anderson said the "engine" driving Michael Schiavo's case thus far has been his testimony that she was not a regular churchgoer and that she would have wanted to die.

"No matter what Terri wanted before, in order to continue the fiction that she wants to die, you have to find that she wants to defy the Word of God, to be disobedient to God, to abandon her religious faith and to directly defy the dictates of her chosen faith," Anderson said.

Anderson said whether one thinks that Terri is spiritually aware or can think, she should not be "put to death" in violation of her religious faith.

"If you can't make a Muslim prisoner eat pork and beans, I don't see how you can kill this young woman in violation of her Catholic teachings," Anderson said.

Crediting Southern Baptists with foresight for drawing public attention to the issue of euthanasia as early as 1992, Anderson said she believes Southern Baptists anticipated the problem and acted quickly.

"The Catholic Church has gotten all the press for being anti-euthanasia and pro-life," Anderson said, "but in fact the Southern Baptists certainly have a longer history of being explicitly anti-euthanasia by starvation and dehydration than the Catholic Church does.

"It's the Baptists who are out there kind of leading the cavalry charge," Anderson said.


Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness. For more information, see "Terri Schiavo: A Life at Stake" in the Witness' Special Reports section at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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