The Rev. Frank Pavone, a pro-life leader, was one of the few able to visit Terri Schiavo in the final days of her life 10 years ago as she lay in a hospital bed, fixed to a feeding tube, the subject of an intense national debate over euthanasia.
As Schiavo’s husband pushed to remove the feeding tube, Congress rushed to legislate and then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sought a court order to keep her alive, Father Pavone was in her hospital room.
“She responded to my prayers, to my voice,” said Father Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. “I saw that with my own eyes.”
Schiavo died March 31, 2005, of starvation and dehydration after her husband Michael won his court battle and removed the feeding tube.
Today, Father Pavone thinks people have misconstrued the fallout from her highly publicized ordeal as a debate over the pros and cons of certain medical treatments, while he sees it as a question of life itself and when a body ceases to function.
“The question with Terri was, ‘Is there worthless life?’” he said.
Schiavo’s ordeal began in 1990, when she collapsed from cardiac arrest at home at the age of 26 and went into a persistent vegetative state. Her husband insisted she would not have wanted to be kept alive on a machine if she could not be rehabilitated; her parents and brother sought to keep her alive and take care of her, regardless of her quality of life.
After a series of court battles, Mr. Schiavo won the right to remove the feeding tube in 2003, prompting the state legislature to pass a law that gave Mr. Bush the authority to continue the feeding, although that law was struck down in the courts.
Since then, Mr. Schiavo has said in interviews that Mr. Bush and others put him through misery as he tried to protect his wife’s wishes.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Bush, who today is courting donors and building the infrastructure for a White House bid, said the former governor stands by how he handled the Schiavo case.
“Gov. Bush has always advocated for a culture of preserving life. For him, being pro-life is not just about preventing deaths of the most vulnerable, but also about promoting human dignity and helping people preserve life,” spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger said. “Gov. Bush engaged on the issue and advocated for Ms. Schiavo for years because he believes that, when in doubt, it is important to err on the side of life.”
Still others felt Congress went too far when it stepped in to make sure the federal courts reviewed the substance of how the state had handled the standoff.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican and physician, effectively offered his own diagnosis from the Senate floor based on his observations of Schiavo from afar.
“I’ve looked at the video footage,” Mr. Frist said at the time. “Based on the footage provide to me, which are part of the facts of the case, she does respond.”
In rare Sunday session, the Senate assented to the bill, which let the federal courts look at whether Schiavo had been afforded her constitutional rights, by a voice vote with only three senators present. The House then quickly took up and passed the measure, 203-58, with predominantly Democrats in opposition, before President George W. Bush — the Florida governor’s brother — flew from Texas to Washington to sign it.
But federal courts struck down that law too.
While it was difficult for people to understand the case at the time, it allowed Republicans to demonstrate that their concern for life could extend beyond the anti-abortion platform, according to Ed Martin, president of the Eagle Forum, a conservative interest group.
“It showed you’re willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect life,” he said.
President Obama, though, has said he regretted not speaking up at the time, saying the Senate’s assent “eventually allowed Congress to interject itself into that decision-making process of the families.”
“It wasn’t something that I was comfortable with, but it was not something that I stood on the floor and stopped,” he said during a February 2008 Democratic primary debate. “And I think that was a mistake, and I think the American people understood that that was a mistake, and as a constitutional law professor, I knew better.”
Father Pavone said Congress made the right move at the time, and he hopes that pro-life lawmakers would take a similar stand today.
“It was at the same time our country was dealing with Saddam Hussein and terrorism and all these efforts to protect our citizens on an international level,” he said of the 2005 vote. “And here we weren’t able to save an American citizen on our own soil.”