WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court refused yesterday to step in and keep a severely brain-damaged woman hooked to a feeding tube, all but ending a long-running right-to-die battle pitting her husband against her parents.
It was the second time the Supreme Court dodged the politically charged case from Florida, where Republican Governor Jeb Bush successfully lobbied the Legislature to pass a law to keep 41-year-old Terri Schiavo on life support.
The decision was criticized as "judicial homicide" by Schiavo's father, Robert Schindler, but applauded by her husband, Michael Schiavo, who contends his wife never wanted to be kept alive artificially.
The court's action is very narrow, affecting only Schiavo.
More broadly, sometime after returning from their winter break, the justices will consider a request by the administration of President Bush to block the nation's only law allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients die more quickly. Oregon voters passed that law in 1998, and more states could follow if justices find that the federal government cannot punish doctors who prescribed lethal doses of federally controlled drugs under such circumstances.
Terri Schiavo was 26 when she suffered brain damage in 1990 after her heart briefly stopped beating because of an eating disorder.
Most of the legal wrangling in the case has involved whether she is in a persistent vegetative state with no chance of recovery and whether her husband has a conflict of interest because he lives with another woman and has two children with her.
The legal battle between Michael Schiavo and his wife's parents began in 1993 and appeared to reach its climax in 2003 when he won a court decision ordering that the feeding tube be removed. But the tube was reinserted six days later, after the Legislature passed "Terri's Law."
The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the law was an unconstitutional effort to override court rulings. Yesterday, the nation's high court refused without comment to disturb that decision.
"It's judicial homicide. They want to murder her," Schindler said. "I have no idea what the next step will be. We're going to fight for her as much as we can fight for her. She deserves a chance."
George Felos, the attorney for Michael Schiavo, said his client will have his wife's feeding tube removed as soon as pending appeals are over and a stay is lifted.
He declined to speculate how long the legal issues would be pending.
"You've got to look at it from his perspective -- he's a citizen living in Clearwater [Fla.] and up against the weight of the governor and Legislature of the state of Florida -- a governor whose brother is president of the United States. That was a very, very difficult and imposing fight. He was very relieved that the rule of law prevailed," Felos said.
Terri Schiavo, who has lived in nursing homes, can breathe on her own but depends on a feeding tube to stay alive because she cannot swallow on her own. She left no written directive. Her parents contend their son-in-law is trying to rush her death so he can inherit her estate and be free to marry again. The Schindlers lost an emergency Supreme Court appeal in 2001.
The case now goes back to state Judge George Greer, who already has ruled the feeding tube can be removed.
"While there are still legal options available in Florida, the Supreme Court's refusal to take the case makes it more difficult for those legal options to prevail," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, who represented the Schindlers at the Supreme Court.
The Schindlers were in Washington yesterday, participating in a right-to-life march organized as part of the 32d anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion.
The case is Jeb Bush v. Michael Schiavo, 04-757.