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Line Between Life, Death

Aired October 22 ,2003 - 14:30:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have close to 15 doctors that are on record with the courts saying that she can improve and will improve.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think Terry's wishes should be carried out. This is what she wanted - this is Terry's wish.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to get her a wheel chair and wheel her out in the sun and let her feel the warmth on her face.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So who is going to look out for this girl's rights we have to.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The state doesn't have a right to override our wishes.

DALJIT DHALIWAL, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voice-over): The fight to keep a Florida woman alive or let her die on this edition of Q&A.


DHALIWAL: Welcome to Q&A everyone. The line between life and death is the issue that we are going to be addressing on Q&A today. Who has the right to decide? Now this case involves a Florida woman with severe brain damage who has been in a vegetative state for 13 years. Terry Schiavo's husband says his wife never wanted to live like this, but her parents disagree. And they want to keep Terry alive. Now the state of Florida has stopped in deciding that she should live. Who should make the call?

Well, with their views joining us from Washington is Pia de Solenni, the director of life and women's issues at the Family Research Council.

Also joining us from New York is David Smith. He is a lawyer and a former legal director of the Society for the Right to Die.

And on the line from Tallahassee in Florida is Jim King. And he is the president of the Florida State Senate. We are going to hear from him in just a moment.

But David Smith, let me start with you first of all. Look, life and death issues are always very, very charged. But why do you think that Terry Schiavo's case has got such a huge amount of attention?

DAVID SMITH, FMR. LEGAL DIRECTOR, SOCIETY FOR THE RIGHT TO DIE: Her living death has become a political football for political activists and for factually ill-informed individuals who have had an agenda that has precisely nothing to do with her own wishes. The Florida court decided her case based upon her own wishes. And this has been to the appellate four times and each time the court ruling has been the same.

DHALIWAL: There wasn't any directive that Terry Schiavo had left saying she wanted her life machines turned off, as I understand it.

SMITH: No, that is right. There was nothing in writing as there would not be with a woman who was 26 years old when she was stricken. What the court took was evidence of her own wishes and determined by clear and convincing evidence the single highest standard in civil jurisprudence in the United states that she did not want to be maintained like this in a persistent vegetative state, decided not once but four times by the appellate courts in the state of Florida.

DHALIWAL: OK, Pia de Solenni, David Smith says this has been turned into a political football. What are your thoughts on this, weigh in for us?

PIA DE SOLENNI, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: Well, you know, the situation is actually extremely tragic. What we have been hearing is Michael's story. We are not hearing Terry's story. We are hearing the story of a man who is technically married to her. This man has said that he knows what Terry's wishes were. It is funny because in 1992 in the original malpractice suit where they won an award of about a million dollars, Michael didn't mention any of Terry's wishes to die. The only evidence we have of supposedly Terry's wish to die is Michael's say so.

Michael is now living with a woman who he calls his fianc‚ and they are expecting their second child together. There has been no mention of the bone scans that have been introduced to the court, bone scans which indicate that Terry could have been a victim of spousal abuse. No one has examined what happened the night that Terry was admitted to the hospital. Friends and family say that she and Michael were fighting. There are questions that have to be examined. And we need to hear Terry's story, not Michael's story.

DHALIWAL: Her husband says that this isn't what Terry wanted. And as far as he is concerned, that is Terry's story.

DE SOLENNI: Do you really trust a man who, you know, first of all, goes after the money, doesn't bring up the supposed wish to die and is now ...

DHALIWAL: These are allegations. There is no evidence and we have no way of knowing that.

DE SOLENNI: We have no evidence of knowing - we have no evidence of knowing that she wanted to die. And the only assistance that she was receiving was a gravity feeding tube. That is not an extraordinary means of care. That is simply so she can swallow her food and eat. Eating - nutrition and hydration are not extraordinary means of care.

DHALIWAL: OK, well David Smith, did she get the kind of help that she needs which would aid her recovery. I mean, she had been on life support, getting help to keep her alive for 13 years. That is a long time.

SMITH: She was according to the medical testimony, undisputed t the trial, she was in a persistent vegetative state from the moment that she was stricken. The appellate courts in Florida have determined that there was no credible evidence presented at any of the trials indicating otherwise. The pejorative accusations directed now at the husband are really easy for the ill informed to make and have precisely nothing to do with only issue here. Senator King in Florida rather hit it directly on the head yesterday when he said that everyone should have a living will. Unfortunately, some 13 years ago when this woman was stricken not everyone did. And a 26-year-old, in any event, is not going to. The courts are thus left with the imperfect but necessary task of trying decide what her own wishes were. The parents had four opportunities. It was an extraordinary length that the courts in Florida went to, four separate opportunities, and each time the court decided these were her wishes.

DHALIWAL: In this case, the state of Florida has stepped in and its decided that Terry Schiavo should live. And Jim King, the president of the Florida State Senate is also joining us on the telephone from Tallahassee. Mr. King, why is this any of Jeb Bush's business?

JIM KING, PRESIDENT, FLORIDA STATE SENATE: Well, you know, I wish it were easier to answer than what it is, particularly in my situation because I was the crafter of Florida's living wills, Florida's surrogate stipulation and Florida's ability - the law that gave the ability to withdraw sustenance. Those were all my bills when I served in the House in the '80s and the early '90s. And they were done because both of my parents died fairly tortuous cancerous deaths. And I knew that there were some things that were worst than dying. So when I was forced within a 24-hour period to either condemn Terry or to grant a reprieve of some kind to Terry, these were very, very difficult decisions, not only for me but for the entire legislature. Just very quickly, understand that we were in a special session. It had nothing to do with any of this. We were on a special session for five days when all of a sudden the speaker of the House decided that he wanted to have ...

DHALIWAL: We have a guest with us who David Smith, and he has raised the point - he is saying that this case of Terry's has been turned into a political football, what do you think of that?

KING: There is no question about the fact that is has become politicized. There is no question about it. But the bigger factor is, you know, that unlike what most people anticipate when they visualize somebody close to death is someone in a fetal position, someone in a comatose position, if someone is not responsive or whatever. Within the 24-hour period that we were dealt this hand, all of a sudden we were seeing videotapes of Terry in a wheelchair. And we were receiving unrefuted evidence that Terry slept and woke up and ...

DHALIWAL: You are saying it there yourself. I mean, you were learning the details of Terry's case as you were expected to make some kind of a decision. So, you know, what did you base your case on? We are hearing claims that it is not even constitutional.

KING: The decision of its constitutionality will be decided within the next five days. And there is a distinct possibility that it is not. What we were dealing with was whether or not you wanted to err, and if you erred, if you erred on the part of caution, on the part of Terry. And that is all we did. We said there are enough conflicting evidences that are being phoned into us, that are being told to us that we had to research in a very short period of time that would lend you to believe that there is some things here that we don't have answers to. And if we don't have the answers to, knowing full well that as long as the sustenance was removed from Terry, one thing was sure thing she was going to die. And so what we did is we gave the governor an opportunity to offer a stay for a period of time. Now the courts will once again review and decide. And if they decide that we were wrong, that's the last time the legislature will view the Terry case.

DHALIWAL: OK, well there are lots of legal questions which are raised by Terry's case. But I want to come back to the point which you also agreed with. This case has been politicized. What do you understand that to mean? Does it have anything to do that this is becoming a cynical attempt to win religious votes among conservatives in your state?

KING: Remember that when the original legislation on death with dignity was passed by me it became very, very much intertwined with the pro-life and the pro-choice movements. And that was very much the arguments that were in place then, even though it did not apply to infants or the new born. It was nonetheless that same group that started the movement that said this is not right. This is not morally correct. And those are the same folks that were actively involved. But it was not only those folks. I will tell you that our phones were brought to closure and our state computers were brought to crash because of thousands, thousands of hits, thousands of requests from across the country and, in fact, across the world. And from people who are far beyond just Christian coalition folks. There were people who empathize with what they saw of the tape with Terry and said do not make the mistake and starve this person to death.

DHALIWAL: All right. Well, Jim King, thanks very much for weighing in. I would like to bring both of our other guests who have been sort of waiting patiently. David Smith, what is your response to what you heard there? There is obviously quite a lot to much (ph) at least politically. And we'll talk about some of the medical issues in the remaining time that we have left.

SMITH: How terribly sad that under circumstances where Senator King admits that the legislature was acting on essentially precisely nothing but instinct and emotion that they chose to overrule what the Florida courts had accomplished over four absolutely ghastly years of proceedings where this husband and the rest of the family was made to endure weeks and weeks of testimony at a time repeatedly about what this own woman's wishes were and what the medical facts are. The medical facts of a person in a persistent vegetative state that any neurologist much agree to is that the person has no midbrain and no upper brain activity.

They have brain stem activity that makes it look as though they are responsive when they are not, that makes it look as if maybe they have an emotional reaction that they do not have. The Florida courts found even after the fourth proceeding where the parents brought in their own so- called experts that there was no evidence that this woman was anything other than a persistent vegetative state. And that quoting from the court, "There was zero chance of her recovering any of her lost cognitive function." That makes what ...

DHALIWAL: Sorry. Pia, let me ask you to respond to some of what David said there. I mean, isn't it cruel then in a sense to keep Terry alive, I mean, giving false hope to her parents who - I mean, it is a very said and a very emotional case. We perhaps haven't come to fact with what the medical situation is with their daughter.

DE SOLENNI: Well, keeping someone alive doesn't necessarily mean that we hope that they will get better. I don't think anybody thinks that Terry will be her old self. However, she is still a human life that is worth protecting. And it has a certain dignity to it, even if she can't feed herself, even if she is not as productive as you and I are. I think it is very curious that David throws around the word ill informed or misinformed constantly. And yet, if you look at the case and the four appellate decisions there is a lot of debate there.

And the judge didn't allow certain testimony in that case. You know, really we need to look at all of the evidence that has been presented. David is presenting the evidence that supports his position. My real question is why does David want this woman to die. She had no express desire to die. We have only the testimony of her husband who has a less than impeccable record. And ...

DHALIWAL: Unfortunately, we are out of time. This is a story that has got very interesting elements - legal, moral, political. So I would like to thank both of you, David Smith, and Pia de Solenni and Jim King for joining us on the line from Tallahassee in Florida.

And that is this edition from Q&A. And before we go, we want to hear what you have to say so why don't you e-mail us your comments. The address as usual is Q&

We will l have more news in just a moment. You are watching CNN.



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