The Battle Over Terri Schiavo’s Legacy


n the eve of the March 31 anniversary of
the death of Terri Schiavo—the woman who had been in a “persistent
vegetative state” since 1990—the battle over her life,
which took place in the courts, in the nation’s capital, and
on the streets outside her hospice room, shifted to a battle over
her legacy. 

In a

New Yorker

article about the Bush administration’s
protracted war on science, Michael Specter wrote that in 1998, when
Michael Schiavo “asked that [Terri’s] feeding tube be
removed…a legal war with her parents [was ignited] that eventually
turned into a national conflict.” 

After several years of legal wrangling, it came down to the passion-packed
month of March 2005 when regular press conferences were held by
her parents, Mary and Bob Schindler, and their mostly right-wing
political surrogates. Demonstrations and vigils were organized by
a cadre of longtime Christian right activists and fundraising pitches
were sent by a host of Christian conservative organizations. In
addition a well-orchestrated campaign was aimed at vilifying Terri’s
husband, Michael. 

With the encouragement of Terri’s parents, religious right
activists unleashed a campaign aimed at winning the battle over
public opinion. What was a private family matter turned into a media
feeding frenzy and a public spectacle. 

For the right wing, the Schiavo case was always bigger than whether
Terri lived or died. Speaking frankly at a March 23, 2005 Family
Research Council-organized event at the Willard Hotel in Washington,
then-Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX) laid out what the Schiavo case
meant to the conservative movement: “It is more than just Terri
Schiavo. This is a critical issue for people in this position and
it is also a critical issue to fight that fight for life, whether
it be euthanasia or abortion. I tell you, ladies and gentlemen,
one thing God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo to elevate the
visibility of what’s going on in America. That Americans would
be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is
lucid and starve them to death for two weeks. I mean, in America
that’s going to happen if we don’t win this fight.” 

On March 31, 2005, soon after being removed from life support, Terri
Schiavo died. On the first anniversary of her death the media paid
little attention to the egregious events that had marked the run-up
to Terri’s death. 

Governor Jeb Bush passed the anniversary quietly. He had continued
attacking Michael Schiavo even after “an autopsy supported”
Michael Schiavo’s “contention that she was unaware of
her condition and incapable of recovering. Within days Jeb Bush…ordered
a state prosecutor to investigate whether Schiavo’s husband
had purposely delayed calling an ambulance when she fell ill in
1990.” According to Specter, “Bush produced no evidence
and his actions alarmed even his Republican allies,” and “the
investigation was quickly dropped.” 

Also on the first anniversary the office of Senate Majority Leader
Bill Frist (R-TN) didn’t remind the public of the senator’s
keen ability to diagnose Schiavo’s condition by viewing a video
of her in her hospital room. 

The beleaguered and indicted former House Majority Leader and now
former Congressperson Tom DeLay, obviously too busy dealing with
his own troubles, also didn’t reiterate last year’s threats
of retribution against judges. 

Randall Terry, the anti-abortion activist and Schiavo family spokesperson,
who was one of the people expected to mobilize support for Schiavo
among conservative Christians, was nowhere to be seen. 

While the Schiavo Case is in several races in Florida this year,

Christian Post

reported that, “Unlike last year,
when Congress, President Bush, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pressed
to keep Schiavo alive, only one lawmaker was on hand…with the
Schindlers [at a Washington, DC press conference], Sen. Sam Brownback,

Following The Money 


n his book

Using Terri: The Religious
Right’s Conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights

2005), Jon Eisenberg, an attorney working pro bono for Michael Schiavo,
wrote that the case was a key battle in the religious right’s
culture wars, which are being fought on “multiple fronts,”
including “pushing for prayer and creationism in the public
schools, opposing stem-cell research, women’s reproductive
rights, and gay civil unions and marriage.” 

Eisenberg found himself wondering, “Who was funding the Schindlers’
advocates.” After visiting the Media Transparency website,
Eisenberg identified a “threetiered structure” that included
“seven foundations…fourteen think tanks and other religious
Right organizations…and eighteen foot soldiers” behind the
case. The “foot soldiers” included: 

  • David Gibbs III and Barbara Weller, attorneys with the Gibbs Law
    Firm; Gibbs, whose family controls the Christian Law Association,
    started working on the case in 2003 and became lead attorney for
    the Schindlers in September 2004 

  • Pat Anderson, the Schindler’s attorney before September 2004 

  • Robert Destro, a law professor at Washington, DC’s Catholic
    University of America and “principal investigator for the
    antigay” Marriage Law Project, who represented Jeb Bush “in
    litigation arising from the passage of ‘Terri’s Law’
    in 2003, and joined…Gibbs III in representing the Schindlers
    in 2005” 

  • Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the Pat Robertson-founded American
    Center for Law and Justice, who was one of the Schindler’s

  • Deborah Berliner and Brett Wood, “formally affiliated with
    …Judicial Watch” 

  • Wesley J. Smith, “the anti-euthanasia activist,” a “behindthe-scenes
    ‘informal advisor’ to the Schindlers” 

  • Rita Marker, executive director of the anti-euthanasia International
    Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide 

  • Kenneth Connor, former head of the Washington, DC-based Family
    Research Council, who worked on “Terri’s Law” 

  • William Saunders and Jon Halisky, lawyers for the FRC’s Center
    for Human Life and Bioethics 

  • Max Lapertosa, Kenneth Walden, and Geoge Rahdert, disability rights

  • Former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), who spearheaded

    congressional intervention  

  • Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), who “sponsored a version of the
    congressional bill that threw the Schiavo case into the federal

  • Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) 

The “officer corp” included: the Alliance Defense Fund,
Family Research Council, American Center for Law and Justice, Life
Legal Defense Fund, National Right to Life Committee, Christian
Law Association, Discovery Institute for Public Policy, Encounter
Books, International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide,
National Organization on Disability, World Institute on Disability,
Judicial Watch, Values Action Team, and the Alexander Strategy Group,
a lobbying group founded by two former aides to DeLay. 

Foundations involved included: the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation,
Scaife family foundations, Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, Randolph
Foundation, JM Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Heritage

“In some instances,” Eisenberg wrote, “I was able
to trace payments directly to a foot soldier…. In other instances,
I discovered broader financial connections where there was a constant
flow of money to the foot soldiers, not discernibly earmarked for
the Schiavo case in particular, but generally financing the foot
soldiers’ work in the trenches of the culture wars, thus facilitating
their work in the Schiavo battle.” 

Against Patients’ Rights 


n March 28 a joint press release from the
Merger Watch Project and Compassion & Choice, two organizations
“dedicated to protecting patients’ right to self-determination,”
warned that between the beginning of 2005 and mid-February 2006,
49 pieces of legislation had been introduced in 23 states that “would
make honoring patients’ wishes to forego life-sustaining treatment
more difficult.” 

According to the groups’ research team, of the bills thus far
proposed, 40 “would restrict forgoing artificially administered
nutrition and hydration”; 20 bills in 13 states “are based
on the National Right to Life Committee [NRLC] model legislation
entitled “Starvation and Dehydration of Persons with Disabilities
Prevention Act”; and 14 contain “restrictions beyond”
the NRLC model bill. 

“This legislative push in the states demonstrates that some
conservative religious leaders and politicians do not plan to stop
with the Terri Schiavo case,” said Lois Uttley, director of
the Merger Watch Project. “They are trying to interfere with
private medical decisions that should be made by patients and their
families, based on sound medical advice and patients’ own religious
and moral values.” 

Still Using Schiavo 


s the one-year anniversary approached,
was hell-bent on defying science, common sense, and public opinion.
It also got a head start on mining the marketing possibilities.
In a communiqué from William Greene, the president of,
the organization claimed that: “Contrary to anything you may
have heard, Terri was NOT brain dead; Terri was NOT in a coma; she
was NOT in a ‘persistent vegetative state’; nor was she
on ANY life-support system. 

“Terri laughed, Terri cried, she moved, and she made child-like
attempts at speech with her family. Sometimes she would say ‘Mom’
or ‘Dad’ or ‘yeah’ when they asked her a question.
When her mother or father kissed her hello or goodbye, she would
look at them and ‘pucker up’ her lips.” 

Michael Schiavo was accused of everything from failing to provide
her with the necessary physical therapy to exacerbating her condition
to wanting her dead for financial reasons. According to the
e-Alert: “Now Michael Schiavo, Terri’s estranged husband
who denied her any therapy for over a decade and then collaborated
with those activist judges and legislators to starve her to death,
has stepped into the media spotlight once again. He’s started
a PAC (political action committee) to exploit Terri’s name
and raise money to defeat the Congressmen and Senators who tried
to save her life.” In addition to inaccurately rewriting history,
these claims were aimed at blunting the launch of Schiavo’s
TerriPAC, which “is committed to educating the public about
the social and political issues surrounding the case of Terri Schiavo,”
said Derek Newton, TerriPAC director.  

isn’t about vengeance, it’s about holding people accountable
for what they did,” Michael Schiavo told Keith Olbermann in
an interview on MSNBC’s “Countdown” on March 27.
“These politicians…walked into our lives and tried to
take it over,” Schiavo said. 

Schiavo’s “Countdown” appearance was also aimed at
publicizing his book

Terri: The Truth

(written with Michael
Hirsh). According to the book, the right wing-orchestrated campaign
that vilified Schiavo led to a $250,000 bounty placed on his head
“urging that I be tortured before I’m killed. I was condemned
by the president of the United States, the majority leaders of the
House and Senate, the governor of Florida, the Pope, Jesse Jackson,
and the right-wing media,” Schiavo wrote. 

The other book released before the anniversary is called

A Life
That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo: A Lesson For Us All,

written by Bob and Mary Schindler, their son Bobby, and their
daughter Suzanne Schindler Vitadamo.  

According to London’s


newspaper, the Schindler
book “recount[s] their failed legal struggle to keep the brain-damaged
woman alive against the wishes of her husband and presenting accounts
of his alleged violent temper.” It also places Michael Schiavo
as the chief villain in the case; Reuters reported that “the
Schindlers again accuse [him] of abusing Terri.”  

While national politicians have essentially chosen not to replay last
year, conservative right-to-lifers have every intention of intruding
in the lives of people as they face difficult and personal family
decisions, by pushing restrictive legislation in their states.


Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.