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Schiavo story is long, with ending still unwritten

What happened Thursday?

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Terri's Law, enacted last October, violates the Florida Constitution. The law let Gov. Jeb Bush order the reconnection of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube even though lower courts had ruled that her husband, Michael, had the right to remove it.

What was the court's rationale?

Terri's Law violated "separation of powers" provisions in the Florida Constitution, which give the Legislature sole authority to make laws, the judiciary sole authority to interpret laws and the governor sole authority to carry them out. Letting Bush override court rulings gave the governor improper power over the judiciary, the court said.

What did the court ruling say about Terri Schiavo's medical condition?

Nothing. The court did not consider her condition. Those issues had been decided by lower courts. The Supreme Court considered only whether the Legislature exceeded its legal authority when it passed Terri's Law.

What happens next?

Though the Supreme Court appears to have cleared the way for removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, the decision is not final. Bush has 10 days to ask for a rehearing; Michael Schiavo would have five days to respond. After that, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer, who oversees the case involving Schiavo's medical condition, may hold further hearings. Schiavo's feeding tube could remain in place well into October.

What is wrong with Terri Schiavo?

Schiavo, 40, suffered cardiac arrest in 1990, slipping into what some doctors call a "vegetative state." Her eyes open and shut, she reacts to sound, she smiles, laughs and groans. Videotapes of these behaviors, posted on the Internet, spurred the Legislature to pass Terri's Law. But most doctors who testified in court said that these are involuntary reactions and that she has little or no cognitive function. Her feeding tube keeps her alive.

What gave Michael Schiavo the right to remove the tube?

Florida law says that people in persistent vegetative states can refuse medical treatments if they have expressed their wishes in advance. If they never put their wishes in writing, the law lets family members _ starting with the spouse _ make that decision, based on what the sick person would have wanted. In addition, the courts had appointed Michael Schiavo as his wife's legal guardian.

Why has this case gone on for 14 years?

Terri Schiavo's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, argue that their daughter recognizes and responds to them, and might be helped with more therapy. Some doctors have testified that she is not in a persistent vegetative state, so the tube legally cannot be removed. The Schindlers also contend that, no matter what her medical condition, Schiavo would have wanted to be kept alive. Judge Greer, who weighed the evidence, consistently ruled for Michael Schiavo, but years of appeals and rehearings ensued.

Will there be more appeals?

Ken Connor, the governor's attorney, said he would study the feasibility of appealing to federal courts, but noted that the U.S. Supreme Court reviews cases only under limited circumstances. The Schindlers cannot appeal Thursday's decision because they were not legal parties to the case. The dispute was only between Bush and Michael Schiavo over the constitutionality of Terri's Law. The Florida Supreme Court previously has refused to review lower court rulings involving Schiavo's medical condition and her wishes. No legal petitions are pending in any court that would prohibit removal of the tube. The Schindlers' attorney, Patricia Anderson, did not return a telephone call.

Where is Terri Schiavo now?

She lives in an assisted living home called Park Place of Clearwater. She is under the care of Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. Her condition has been stable for several years, said George Felos, attorney for Michael Schiavo.

What is Michael Schiavo's intent?

Michael Schiavo could not be reached, but Felos said Schiavo intends to remove his wife's feeding tube as soon as possible. Michael Schiavo is engaged to another woman and has fathered two children by her. He won't divorce Terri Schiavo, he says, because that might allow her parents to keep her alive against her wishes. As of six to nine months ago, Felos said, all but $50,000 or $60,000 of a trust fund from a malpractice verdict and settlement surrounding Terri's collapse had been spent on her care and legal fees.

What will happen if the tube is removed?

People can live two to three weeks without food or water, said Ronald Schonwetter, director of geriatric medicine at the University of South Florida. Last year, Schiavo's tube was removed for six days until Terri's Law was passed. Most experts believe that lack of food and water results in a relatively painless death, Schonwetter said. People sleep more and more as their organs shut down. Then they lapse into a coma and die.

Might the Legislature try to keep Terri Schiavo alive with a new law?

Few people are willing to rule out any possibility in the Schiavo case, but the political climate has changed. Unlike the situation last fall, no special legislative session is in the works, not even for hurricane relief, which is uppermost on legislators' minds. Neither incoming Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, nor incoming House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, were among the prime movers behind Terri's Law.