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Rick Scott's pro-life boasts hinge on Texas family's preemie turmoil

TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott is reaching into his corporate past to woo a key electorate in the Republican primary for governor and bolster his claims as a "pro-life leader."

"We lost a $43 million lawsuit because we saved the life of a child that the parents didn't want us to," the former Columbia/HCA health care CEO said on a recent Panhandle campaign swing. "Everything I've done in my career … I care about life."

As antiabortion issues begin to dominate Scott's contest with Attorney General Bill McCollum, Scott's lack of a voting record stands in contrast to McCollum's lengthy history from two decades in Congress and repeated bids for elective office.

But as he courts core conservative voters, Scott is thrusting a Texas family's 20-year-old turmoil into an increasingly bitter dialogue on the topic of life.

The family suggests Scott is distorting its misfortune for political gain.

"Mr. Scott, you've grossly overstepped the bounds of decency," Mark Miller, the father at the center of the controversial case, said in an interview. "I call on you to accurately reflect the facts. If you are going to run on the record, run on all of it, not just the parts that suit your needs."

• • •

Mark and Karla Miller rushed to a Houston hospital Aug. 17, 1990, when labor complications put Karla's pregnancy and life in jeopardy.

At 23 weeks, the fetus existed on the edge of viability for life outside the womb. The organs were too premature to breathe or circulate blood. Doctors gave the couple a grim outlook.

With the possibility of a normal life remote and death the expected outcome, the Millers decided not to take "extra-heroic measures" that would cause the newborn to suffer. At the time, Karla Miller said she just wanted to hold her daughter. "I wanted her to know that we loved her, and I wanted her to feel loving hands," she said.

The family's doctors consented to their wishes, and Mark Miller left the hospital to make funeral arrangements. But while he was gone, Women's Hospital administrators adopted a policy that required all life-saving measures possible because of the fetus' age and weight.

The Millers entered the delivery room not knowing what would happen. At 11:03 p.m., Karla Miller gave birth to Sidney Ainsley, who weighed just more than a pound. A tube was inserted down her throat and pure oxygen, which can cause complications, was pumped into her lungs.

She barely lived and even survived a brain operation two months after her birth, an age too young for anesthesia.

Today, Sidney is nearly 20 years old. She can't walk, talk or eat on her own. She suffers from cerebral palsy, brain damage, seizures and blindness. She requires constant care at the Miller home in Sealy, Texas, west of Houston.

Two years after her birth, the family filed a lawsuit against the hospital — not the doctors — for treating Sidney without legal consent. The Millers sought financial damages and expenses to cover the cost of her care after the family's insurance policy hit its $1 million ceiling.

In 1994, Scott's hospital company, Columbia, bought the HCA chain, which owned Women's Hospital in Houston.

The lawsuit was pending at the time, and Scott said he made the determination to continue fighting the case — the act he uses to support his claim as a "pro-life leader."

"We continued the case because I believed in the sanctity of life — I believed in what they did at the hospital," he said in an interview. "So it's consistent with what I have believed all along about being pro-life."

Pressed for details about what he knew and his role in the Millers' case, Scott said he recalls little. "I can't remember back. I don't know, it was so long ago," he said.

He left the merged company — ousted amid a federal fraud investigation — in 1997, months before the Millers' case went to trial.

In court, the Millers posed this question to the jury: Who is best positioned to make the decision about care for a child: the parents or the hospital?

The jury's answer: the Millers. The panel awarded the family $43 million to cover expenses.

The company won an appeal to a higher court, which overturned the verdict — a decision upheld by the Texas Supreme Court in 2003.

Scott never made a public comment about the case or the subsequent rulings. Asked the question at the center of the case, Scott didn't get into specifics but sided with hospital administrators.

"I believe in the sanctity of life," he said. "I believe that when a child is born, as a medical entity you take care of that child and do everything you can to preserve that life."

• • •

Mark Miller, who has had to shoulder all legal and medical costs, said his daughter's case is not about abortion, a practice he and his wife ardently oppose.

"Our case had absolutely nothing to do with abortion, nothing to do with pro-life advocacy, nothing to do with right to life," Miller said. "Our case was about consent to treat, a fundamental expectation that all parents deserve."

The 58-year-old stock broker's voice sounded weary after years of debunking misinformation about the case, which grabbed national attention. He is intensely protective of his daughter, the oldest of three children in the family, declining to share even family photos.

Now Miller is asking Scott, who made millions as Columbia/HCA's CEO, to stop rehashing his family's pain.

"It's unfortunate that a Florida gubernatorial candidate has chosen our daughter's misfortune and subsequent legal case … as his personal testimony," he said.

Miller would cherish the opportunity to confront Scott on the campaign trail. He wants Scott to stop distorting the truth and set the record straight.

• • •

The Millers' experience is just the latest element of a debate beginning to dominate the GOP primary.

McCollum's campaign — which recently received the endorsement of John Stemberger, the president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a leading antiabortion group — refused to make the attorney general available for an interview.

In other elections, this political debate is often expressed through the prism of Terri Schiavo, a Clearwater woman whose husband sought to remove her feeding tube against her parents' wishes, igniting a national debate that prompted lawmakers to try to intervene in a court case to prevent her death.

At one point, McCollum said he supported then-Gov. Jeb Bush's repeated attempts to keep Schiavo alive, though he softened his stance as an attorney general candidate, saying he would put his personal views aside and uphold the court's decision.

Scott said he wholeheartedly agreed with Bush's efforts: "I think the government's role is to preserve life."

A number of antiabortion voters are still unsure about Scott, said Carrie Eisnaugle, president of Florida Right to Life. But she said they are paying particular attention this year after Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed an ultrasound bill designed to reduce abortions.

"The candidates realized the pro-life vote here in Florida is a strong voice," she said "They understand it will be very important to winning the primary."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Rick Scott's pro-life boasts hinge on Texas family's preemie turmoil 07/10/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 3:55pm]
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