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As Schiavo saga winds down, leaders pursue broader debate

Efforts by lawmakers in Washington to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo failed in the courts and tanked in opinion polls, but intense interest in the Florida woman's saga is expected to force a broader debate in Congress and state legislatures about government's role in sensitive end-of-life issues.

As Schiavo entered her 11th day yesterday without the feeding tube that has sustained her for 15 years, a small group of protesters stood in a driving rain outside the White House and prayed for lawmakers to do more now to help prevent her death. The pleas drew little response, though, and one organizer said congressional leaders "are lacking the political will" to intervene.

"I plead again with the powers that be: Don't give up on her," Schiavo's father, Robert Schindler, said outside the hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., that has become the emotional center of a story that has drawn the nation's attention to difficult end-of-life questions. "We haven't given up on her, and she hasn't given up on us."

There were signs that political leaders - with few options left in Schaivo's case - had turned to a broader fight. Some members of Congress, from both parties, say they want to push sweeping legislation that would allow federal courts to review all cases where the wishes of an incapacitated patient are in dispute. A hearing is scheduled next week before the Senate Health Committee, with others expected in the House.

State legislatures, which traditionally oversee questions about patient guardians and living wills, also are poised to join the debate.

State actions

In Baton Rouge last week, one state lawmaker announced plans to introduce "Louisiana's Terri Schiavo Bill," a measure that would require doctors to continue to feed and hydrate incapacitated patients whose wishes are not clear.

For the politicians, there is a delicate balancing of the concerns raised by disability groups and religious conservatives, and public opinion polls that show widespread opposition to the decision by Congress to insert itself into Schiavo's case. A CBS News poll released last week showed that 82 percent of Americans thought Congress should have stayed out of the Schiavo case, a sentiment that cut across religious and ideological lines.

"Because these are very important decisions, and very difficult decisions, my advice to any lawmaker is to approach this in a very thoughtful, deliberative and careful manner," Jonathan Keyserling, a vice president in the public policy office of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, said in an interview.

Congress has not clearly staked its next move. The House earlier this month passed broad legislation that would allow the federal courts to review any contested cases involving incapacitated patients who had not left a living will. A revised version, focused solely on the Schiavo case, eventually was approved, but Florida Rep. Dave Weldon, a Republican and an internist, has said he would like to see the original legislation revived.

"It was a fairly narrow bill," Weldon said Sunday on the ABC News show This Week. "I thought there were lots of parallels to death penalty cases, and we typically allow all these death penalty cases to get reviewed in the federal court, mainly just to see that constitutional rights are protected."

A spokeswoman for Weldon said yesterday that he did not want to comment further.

Reviewing disputes

Some Democrats, meanwhile, signaled that they also are willing to take up the issue.

Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who has criticized the emergency legislation passed in Schiavo's case, said on the ABC News program that Congress needs to consider improving the procedures for reviewing end-of-life disputes.

And in the Senate, longtime disability advocate Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who wrote the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, intends to introduce legislation that would provide a federal review in cases where there is a dispute over a patient's wishes and no written living will, a spokeswoman said yesterday.

"He would prefer that we are addressing the underlying issue here," the spokeswoman, Allison Dobson, said yesterday. "Unfortunately, it took this very sad case to sort of bring into relief the real issues here that many families face. It's a matter of putting into place the proper precautions to make sure an individual's wishes are learned and respected."

In the emergency legislation that allowed Schiavo's case to be reviewed by U.S. courts, lawmakers included language urging that Congress consider a broader investigation into the "status and legal rights of incapacitated individuals who are incapable of making decisions concerning the provision, withholding or withdrawal of foods, fluids, or medical care."

'Serious attention'

Disability advocates say that review is overdue. The high-visibility case of Terri Schiavo has allowed them to publicly fight the notion that people with severe disabilities would prefer death and to draw attention to unchecked abuses by guardians.

"A lot has transpired under the public's radar screen in the last 15 years," on disability issues, said Diane Coleman, president of the advocacy group Not Dead Yet, said. "This deserves serious attention."

Attention remained focused yesterday on Schiavo. She was described as emaciated and extremely weak by her parents, who fought a years-long court battle with Michael Schiavo, their daughter's husband and legal guardian, to try to prevent her feeding tube from being removed.

Michael Schiavo has said his wife would not want to be kept alive in her current condition, and the courts have consistently sided with his position.

The wrenching fight did not wane as Terri Schiavo approached death. About a dozen police officers guarded the Florida hospice yesterday where protesters held signs and loudly chanted, "Give Terri water!" Her parents and an attorney for Michael Schiavo made competing claims about her condition yesterday, with the lawyer describing her as resting peacefully and her father saying she appeared to be "fighting like hell to live."

Washington protest

Supporters of Schiavo's parents turned their attention back to lawmakers yesterday, with about two dozen protesters flying to Washington with the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, to pressure national political leaders for action.

The group held a brief protest outside the White House. Mahoney and the others later visited the offices of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican from Texas. But with Congress away from Washington for Easter recess, there was no sign that lawmakers would intervene.

"We would say they are lacking the political will" to intervene again, Mahoney said of congressional leaders.

President Bush and congressional leaders have said they exhausted all legal options to help Terri Schiavo.

In Florida, the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, said yesterday that he could not circumvent the decisions of the courts.

"I have not seen any means by which the executive branch can get involved," the governor said. "My legal counsel has talked to the Schindler family and their lawyer over the weekend. My heart is broken about this."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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