Right to Die or the Right to Live?

Explore the legal and ethical questions raised by the controversial case Schindler v. Schiavo

Right to Die or the Right to Live?

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In 1990, 27 year old Terri Schindler Schiavo suffered an apparent heart attack at her home in Florida. Emergency medical technicians restored a heartbeat, but Terri remained comatose at first, then later semicomatose. Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, was appointed her guardia, and she was placed in a long-term care facility, where she was finally diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state.

In 1992, Michael Schiavo sued Terri’s physician for malpractice and was awarded $600,000. Terri was awarded $1.4 million and $250,000 in separate medical malpractice trials.

In 1993, Michael Schiavo refused medically recommended rehabilitative therapy for Terri, and her parents intervened. Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri’s parents, petitioned the court to remove Michael Schiavo as Terri’s guardian. A judge denied the guardianship petition. In 1997, a judge approved Michael Schiavo’s petition to remove the tubes delivering Terri’s hydration and nutrition. Terri seemed semiconscious, and her parents insisted she might be successfully rehabilitated.

In 1998, the court appointed a guardian ad litem to investigate Terri’s case. The guardian ad litem recommended against removing Terri’s feeding tubes and was dismissed for bias. In 2001, the court ordered the feeding tubes removed, despite physicians’ testimonials that Terri was not in a PVS and could swallow. Many physicians also testified that Terri was in a PVS. In April of that year, Terri’s feeding tubes were removed, but in light of new evidence, a new judge ordered feeding restored.

Court battles continued, with Michael Schiavo petitioning the court to end Terri’s life and her parents counter petitioning to keep Terri alive. Finally, in October 2003, the Florida legislature passed a law “Terri’s Law” allowing then Governor Jeb Bush to issue an executive order to let Terri continue to receive nutrition and hydration. The law was repealed in September 2004.

In March 2005, Michael Schiavo won court approval to have his wife’s feeding tube removed. Terri died 13 days later, on March 31, 2005, after having been in an apparent PVS for 15 years. An autopsy performed in June 2005 confirmed that Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state.


source: Schindler v. Schiavo, Florida Supreme Court, 900 So.2d 554 (2005).

Judson, K., Harrison, C. (2019) Law & Ethics for Health Professions (8th ed.). New York, NY. McGraw-Hill Education.

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