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How Terri's Law came to pass

Published Nov. 2, 2003|Updated Sep. 2, 2005

For weeks, state Rep. Frank Attkisson had a ready answer for anyone who e-mailed him about saving Terri Schiavo.

The delete button.

"I have been deleting them as fast as I could," said the Republican from Kissimmee, who had not closely followed the case of the severely brain-damaged Pinellas County woman. "She's not in my district, and we get a lot of e-mails."

Then Attkisson saw Schiavo's eyes and facial reactions in a video on TV.

"I said, wait a minute, that's not my definition of somebody in a comatose situation," he said.

His reaction helped spark the Florida Legislature's unprecedented decision to intervene in the case. Lawmakers passed a bill Oct. 21 giving Gov. Jeb Bush the authority to reverse a judge's decision and order the reconnection of a feeding tube that had kept Schiavo alive for 13 years. The tube had been removed six days earlier.

"Terri's Law," a one-page bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Bush in less than 24 hours, now is being challenged by Schiavo's husband in a legal battle expected to reach the Florida Supreme Court.

The law has brought praise and scorn upon legislators with an intensity not seen since they injected themselves into the 2000 presidential election.

Bush called the decision "an act of compassion." He and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, got most of the credit _ and gratitude _ from people across the country who agreed with the decision. Bush said more than 160,000 people made calls and sent e-mails.

Byrd, a candidate for U.S. Senate, attracted nationwide media coverage with appearances on Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes and PBS' NewsHour, where he cited the Schiavo video.

Several doctors and courts have found Schiavo to be in a persistent vegetative state, but Byrd disagreed.

"If you look at these videos," he said, "I think you cannot characterize her as being in some sort of a coma."

With Byrd's help, the House moved first in the Schiavo case. But behind the scenes in the Capitol, the result was shaped largely by Senate President Jim King, who initially opposed intervention of any kind.

It started with Attkisson, an abortion rights opponent with a perfect 100 rating from the Christian Coalition. The little-known second-term Republican was moved by that video, and he believed someone "impartial" should have a say in end-of-life care.

He was upset to learn that Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, fathered a child with his girlfriend while making life-or-death decisions as his wife's legal guardian.

"I don't say this in a vilifying way," Attkisson said, "but how many other women in Florida would accept a husband having children with another woman and living with another woman yet making a life-or-death decision on them? I'm saying that should be evaluated."

Attkisson enlisted a House lawyer, Don Rubottom, to research state law, while he worked his cell phone. He was joined by Rep. John Stargel, a Republican from Lakeland and a lawyer who also was troubled by Michael Schiavo's role.

By telephone on Sunday, Oct. 19, the two lawmakers urged Byrd to take up the issue in a special legislative session on economic development set to start the next day. Attkisson recalled that Byrd was "not initially supportive" of stepping in and "asked a lot of probing questions, a lot of what-if questions."

Stargel and others wanted to pass a six-month moratorium on withdrawing feeding tubes in narrow circumstances. They wanted to prevent a guardian such as Michael Schiavo from making end-of-life decisions where a conflict of interest was possible.

But more powerful lawmakers quickly took control of private discussions on Monday, Oct. 20. They had other ideas.

The first time Stargel saw the different approach was Monday afternoon, when he walked into a room where Senate lawyers were crafting a bill along with one of Bush's legal advisers.

"Once the media got hold of it, it became a frenzy, and we were frozen out of the negotiations," Stargel said.

As a special legislative session began, Bush was busy pitching a $369-million plan to attract biomedical center Scripps Research Institute to Florida. But even as Bush addressed the Legislature, Byrd was sending handwritten notes to King, suggesting how a change in state law could restore nutrition to Schiavo.

By then, phones in the Capitol were ringing nonstop with messages and computers were flooded with e-mails from people pleading to save Schiavo's life.

"I do not believe a court has a right to decide if a person should die," Linda Crosby of Phoenix wrote to Bush in one of thousands of messages to the governor. "If a person in Florida stopped feeding and watering their dog, they would be punished for cruelty to animals. This is a human life we are talking about here."

Pro-Schiavo Web sites referred to "Terri's bill" or "the speaker's bill," even though a bill did not yet exist.

King did not want to intervene, but pressure was mounting. He gathered his key advisers in his office on the Capitol's fourth floor to discuss options.

Joined by his chief of staff, communications director and two policy advisers, King was adamant. He would not accept a House proposal for a six-month moratorium on removing feeding tubes while the Legislature studied a permanent solution. That, King worried, would affect a great number of cases, with unknown implications for grieving families.

King proposed a bill tailored solely for Schiavo with a 15-day window for the governor to act.

He asked Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, to handle the issue. He said his choice had nothing to do with the fact that Webster is running against Byrd for U.S. Senate.

King had not followed the Schiavo case closely. But as a sponsor of Florida's original "death with dignity" law in 1990, an emotional issue that followed the deaths of his parents, he brought personal and historical perspectives and a deeply held set of beliefs.

"The more people it affected, the worse I felt about it," King said.

Because a governor can grant a stay of execution in a death penalty case, King asked, might he also be given such authority in the Schiavo case?

"Everybody kind of looked at each other. Was this something we could do?" recalled King's communications director, Sarah Bascom, who was in the room. "He picked up the phone and called the governor and said, "What do you think about this?' "

Later, in a reception area outside King's office, two of King's policy advisers and one of Bush's lawyers began writing the bill.

They specified four conditions that apply only to Schiavo: a patient (1) who had no written advance directive, (2) who was found by a court to be in a persistent vegetative state, (3) who has had nutrition and hydration withheld as of Oct. 15 and (4) whose family member challenged the withholding of nutrition and hydration.

Present were Senate advisers Rebecca McCarron and Wendy Hanson and an assistant general counsel from Bush's office, Christa Calakas. Other House members and Bush staffers arrived.

"They were writing, writing, writing," Bascom said. "It all came to a head very quickly."

The bill was drafted Monday evening. Bush added the issue to the special session agenda at 7:44 p.m. after being assured that the House would later adopt the language the Senate wanted.

Minutes later, Stargel explained the bill on the House floor. There were no committee hearings and no legal analysis of the constitutional implications. The House passed it 68-23, with 28 members absent, at 10:10 p.m.

Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Pompano Beach, said he and another Irish Catholic, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach, were looking for a way to vote for the bill and _ for once _ be on the same side of an issue as the Florida Catholic Conference.

Seiler suggested giving the chief judge of the circuit the power to issue a stay, based on the circumstances that apply only in the Schiavo case. His proposal was not considered by the Republican majority.

Moving with lightning speed, a Senate committee heard the bill at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 21, and the full Senate approved a slightly revised version about 3:30 p.m. The House gave final passage to the bill about 4 p.m., and Bush signed it into law a half-hour later.

The impact was swift.

About 6:45 p.m., Schiavo was moved by ambulance from a hospice to a Clearwater hospital. About 9:15 p.m., she began receiving fluids as the first step to resume feedings. She was taken back to the hospice the next day.

In the rush to pass Terri's Law, critics said, the Legislature trampled the Constitution and heaped even more anguish on the bitterly divided Schiavo family. Her husband insists she wants the tubes removed, and her parents want them connected.

"If it's not constitutional, we've put this family through an emotional roller coaster," Seiler said, "and we've also put the Constitution on that roller coaster."

Seiler said the law violates Article II, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution: "No person belonging to one branch shall exercise any powers appertaining to either of the other branches unless expressly provided herein."

"I think we chose the worst option imaginable by putting the governor as the central decision-maker," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, one of 24 House members who voted no. "It's just a horrible precedent, that we're going to allow the governor to insert his judgment over that of multiple judges in a process that has rules and procedures."

Even Stargel, the freshman lawmaker who helped trigger the debate but whose broad moratorium proposal was rejected, sees potential problems.

"It at least for the immediately foreseeable future provides what we were looking for," Stargel said. "Obviously, I liked my approach better, but other minds prevailed."

Byrd said King put the House in a "take-it-or-leave-it position," but he is proud of what the Legislature did and says most people are, too.

"Everywhere I go," Byrd said, "people come up to me and thank me for saving Terri Schiavo's life."

Key events in creating "Terri's Law'

Oct. 15

Terri Schiavo's feeding tube is removed.

Oct. 20

+ 7:44 p.m. _ The bill proposing "Terri's Law" is added to the special legislative session agenda.

+ 10:10 p.m. _ The House passes the bill.

Oct. 21

+ 3:30 p.m. _ The Senate passes the bill with revisions.

+ 4 p.m. _ The House gives final approval to the bill giving Gov. Jeb Bush the authority to order the reconnection of Schiavo's feeding tube.

+ 4:30 p.m. _ Bush signs the bill into law.

+ 9:15 p.m. _ Schiavo begins receiving fluids as the first step to resume feedings.

Law's legislative players

Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, helped spark the unprecedented decision to intervene in the Schiavo case.

Rep. John Stargel, R-Lakeland, joined in early, proposing a moratorium on withdrawing feeding tubes.

Together with Gov. Jeb Bush, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, a candidate for U.S. Senate, got most of the credit for the law.

Senate President Jim King, whose presence was stronger behind the scenes, tailored the law to apply just to Schiavo.


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