What began as one family's bitter split over painful end-of-life decisions and grew into an unprecedented political battle that reached Congress, the White House and the Vatican ended yesterday with the death of Terri Schiavo at a hospice in central Florida. She was 41.
The severely brain-damaged woman died 13 days after the feeding tube that had sustained her for the past 15 years was removed at a judge's direction. That simple medical procedure touched off an extraordinary act of Congress, with lawmakers and President Bush racing to enact legislation that forced the federal courts to review her case.
But while politicians succeeded in pushing the family dispute over her life to the federal judiciary, they could not change the outcome.
Three federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, repeatedly refused to overrule state court decisions from Florida that, again and again in the years-long legal fight, had sided with the claims of Michael Schiavo that his wife would not want to be kept alive.
Private tragedy and public uproar collided in the story of Terri Schiavo, which played out in her final days on 24-hour news channels and which will become a landmark in a far broader public debate about the role of government and the courts in end-of-life issues. Her death was met with a mix of tears and outrage, grief and quiet relief. The Florida Legislature paused for a moment of silence. In Washington, the president urged "all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life."
"The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak," Bush said. "In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life."
Terri Schiavo suffered catastrophic brain damage 15 years ago after a collapse thought to have been brought on by an eating disorder. She did not have a living will, and the uncertainty about her wishes bitterly divided Michael Schiavo, her legal guardian who believed that she would want to die, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, who wanted to prolong their daughter's life as long as possible.
"Mr. Schiavo's overriding concern here was to provide Terri a peaceful death with dignity," his attorney George Felos told reporters yesterday. "This death was not for the siblings and not for the spouse and not for the parents. This was for Terri. She has a right to die peaceably, in a loving setting, and with dignity."
Over time, the Schiavo case had drawn impassioned partisans from a vast array of forces -- advocates from the right-to-die movement as well as abortion opponents, religious groups, disability rights supporters and the Vatican. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who went to Florida on Tuesday in behalf of the Schindlers, called Terri Schiavo's case "one of the profound moral and ethical breaches of our time."
In recent weeks, supporters of the Schindlers rallied and held prayer vigils outside the hospice center in Pinellas Park, where their daughter had been cared for since 2000. They waived American flags and portraits of Christ, loudly chanted: "Give Terri water!" and held signs, some savaging Michael Schiavo and others pleading: "Someone help us."
The raw emotions did not end with the news of Terri Schiavo's death. The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of the advocacy group Priests for Life, told reporters in Florida: "This is not only a death, with all the sadness that brings, but this is a killing, and for that we not only grieve that Terri has passed but we grieve that our nation has allowed such an atrocity as this, and we pray that it will never happen again."
At the Vatican, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins called the removal of the feeding tube that had sustained Terri Schiavo an "an attack against God." In Texas, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay issued a statement attacking the legal system: "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
Michael Schiavo, who was at his wife's bedside along with his brother and two attorneys when she died, did not appear in public yesterday. Mr. and Mrs. Schindler were called to the hospice upon their daughter's death; they came and left without comment, looking stricken.
Terri Schiavo's siblings, Bobby Schindler and Suzanne Vitadamo, publicly thanked their sister's caregivers and doctors and supporters, and promised to work on behalf of other profoundly disabled people.
"Terri is now with God, and she has been released from all earthly burdens," Vitadamo said. "Please continue to pray that God gives grace to our family as we go through this difficult time."
Among physicians and medical ethicists, Terri Schiavo's case was considered unique -- not because of her brain injuries, but because most disputed end-of-life questions are settled quietly after difficult, private conversations between family members and doctors.
Her case, by contrast, became an emotional, exhaustively litigated showdown that drew politicians and the nation into a difficult public discussion about end-of-life decisions.
"It's heartbreaking," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, said yesterday in Tallahassee. "I wish I could have done more. That's the sadness in my heart."
But opinion polls showed that the vast majority of Americans were uneasy with the government's attempts to intervene in one family's anguished fight. A CBS News poll last week showed that 82 percent of Americans thought Congress should have stayed out of the fight over Terri Schiavo's life, a sentiment that cut across religious and political lines.
The political fight also left thorny questions about the separation of powers and judicial independence that political analysts said could linger, possibly influencing the 2006 midterm elections and making bruising fights over the president's judicial nominations uglier.
Theresa Marie Schiavo, who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and met her husband when they were students at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania, became -- ultimately -- the central figure in a vast debate about religion, life, medicine and ethics that swirled fiercely around her.
There was fierce disagreement on virtually every aspect of her case, well beyond the central question of whether her own wish would have been to live or die.
Doctors were divided about whether she was in a persistent vegetative state, with no chance of ever recovering, or if her diagnosis was the more hopeful prognosis of being "minimally conscious." Her husband and her parents feuded over basic questions of whether she had any awareness of her surroundings and situation, and whether any therapy could help her. As recently as this week, her parents insisted that she was communicative and responding to them.
Other disagreements were far more bitter and personal, with each side leveling charges that the other was motivated by money from a more than $1 million medical malpractice settlement 10 years ago. Less than $50,000 of that money remained by mid-March.
Terri Schiavo's parents also charged that Michael Schiavo wanted their daughter to die because he had moved on and begun a new life, fathering two children with a woman he intends to marry. At least two wealthy observers offered Michael Schiavo hefty sums -- $1 million in one instance, $10 million in another -- to divorce Terri Schiavo and allow her parents to become her guardians.
Michael Schiavo, who also faced repeated death threats, refused. He said he would not divorce his wife because he firmly believed that he was carrying out her true wishes, end-of-life options that he said they had discussed casually when they were a young couple with their future wide open.
"It's not about the money," he said. "This is about Terri. It's not about the Schindlers. It's not about the legislators. It's not about me. It's about what Terri wanted."
For Terri Schiavo's family, there was no reconciliation in her death. Michael Schiavo's lawyers said this week that a full autopsy would show what one of his attorneys described as the "full and massive extent of the damage to Ms. Schiavo's brain" and to counter allegations that she was communicative in her final days.
Michael Schiavo also intends to have his wife's remains cremated, as he said she wished, and that her ashes would be interred in his family's burial plot in Pennsylvania. Terri Schiavo's parents had a different wish, that their daughter would have a Roman Catholic funeral and be buried in Florida, near them.