Public opinion and activism in the Terri Schiavo case

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The case of Terri Schiavo became the subject of intense public debate and activism.

Public opinion[edit]

Articles relating to the
Terri Schiavo case

Main article
Public opinion and activism

Persistent vegetative state

Living will
Others involved

James E. King
Randall Terry
William Hammesfahr
George Greer
James D. Whittemore
George Felos


Two polls conducted in the days following the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube on March 18, 2005, showed that a large majority of Americans believed that Michael Schiavo should have had the authority to make decisions on behalf of his wife, Terri Schiavo, and that the United States Congress overstepped its bounds with its intervention in the case.[1]

According to an ABC News poll from March 21, 2005, 70% of Americans believed that Schiavo's death should not be a federal matter, and were opposed to the legislation transferring the case to federal court. In the same poll, when ABC said "Terri suffered brain damage and has been on life support for 15 years. Doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible," 63% said that they support the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube. Sixty-seven percent agreed with the statement that "elected officials trying to keep Schiavo alive are doing so more for political advantage than out of concern for her or for the principles involved." [2]

A poll by CBS News reported on March 23 showed that 82% of respondents believed Congress and the President should stay out of the matter, while 74% thought it was "all about politics." Only 13% thought Congress acted out of concern for Schiavo. Furthermore, the approval ratings of Congress sank to 34%, its lowest since 1997.[3]

A poll commissioned by the Christian Defense Coalition and completed by Zogby International after Schiavo's death found that, among likely voters, 44% said the tube should remain in place when asked, "[w]hen there is conflicting evidence on whether or not a patient would want to be on a feeding tube, should elected officials order that a feeding tube be removed or should they order that it remain in place?" Thirteen percent said the tube should be removed. Forty-four percent said the person should be allowed to live when asked, "[i]f a person becomes incapacitated and has no written statement that expresses his or her wishes regarding health care, should the law presume that the person wants to live, even if the person is receiving food and water through a tube?" (23% disagreed).[4] After complaints that the polls were not actually asking questions that pertained to this case, or asked leading or confusing questions, Zogby did a very specific poll.[5] This poll asked people if they agreed with starving and dehydrating to death a person who was in the same position as Terri, but without mentioning the fact that she was persistently unconscious. The exact question was "If a disabled person is not terminally ill, not in a coma, and not being kept alive on life support, and they have no written directive, should or should they not be denied food and water," The results were very dramatic. 79% said the patient should not be denied food and water, while just 9 percent said the patient should.

Two CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls on the case also showed public support for removing Schiavo's feeding tube, but by smaller margins. In response to the question, "Based on what you have heard or read about the case, do you think that the feeding tube should or should not have been removed?", 56% of respondents agreed and 31% disagreed when polled between March 18–20. When respondents were asked the same question on an April 1–2 poll, conducted after Schiavo's death, 53% agreed with the feeding tube's removal while 41% disagreed.[6] Gallup concluded that "These poll results, obtained after Schiavo's death on March 31, reflect an increase in opposition to the removal of the tube compared to mid-March data." The poll also showed continued strong disapproval for Congress's involvement in the case.[7]

Activism and protests[edit]

Protesters in front of Schiavo's Pinellas Park, Florida hospice, March 27, 2005.

U.S. President George W. Bush, Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, many Republicans, several Democrats in the Florida Legislature and U.S. Congress, and Vatican officials have sided with Schiavo's parents. Other groups and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union as well as many Democratic and several Republican legislators, have expressed support for the position of Michael Schiavo. One individual activist even filed a pro se appeal with the Florida State Supreme Court.[8]

Various Christian organizations, mostly affiliated with the Christian right, demanded that Schiavo's feeding tube be reinserted. Consumer activist Ralph Nader and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a Democrat and civil rights activist, also called for Schiavo's feeding tube to be reinserted. On March 29, 2005, Jackson prayed with the Schindler family outside of Schiavo's Florida hospice. Some groups, such as Not Dead Yet, also protested the removal of the feeding tube because they felt it violated the rights of the disabled.

Forty-seven protesters, including many children, were arrested outside the hospice where Schiavo was located. Most of these were non-violent, staged arrests for trespassing, made when protestors crossed a police line in a symbolic attempt to bring water to Schiavo. The last arrest occurred after Jackson's press conference on March 29, 2005, when a family therapist from Scranton, Pennsylvania, named Dow Pursley slipped past the police cordon and headed for the hospice's main entrance, carrying two bottles of water for Schiavo. Police officers stunned Pursley with a Taser and apprehended him. Pursley was charged with attempted burglary and resisting arrest without violence.[9][10]

Richard Alan Meywes of North Carolina was accused of offering $250,000 over the Internet for the murder of Michael Schiavo and $50,000 for the murder of Judge George Greer. Because of the nature of his crimes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was involved in the case, and Meywes was charged under Federal law. Meywes's lawyer claimed he was "not serious" about his offers.[11][12]

In another case, Michael Mitchell, of Rockford, Illinois, attempted to rob a Florida gun store as part of an attempt to rescue Terri Schiavo. He selected Randall's Firearms, which was located near Schiavo's hospice in Seminole, Florida. Mitchell first entered the store and spoke with owner Randy McKenzie, and then departed. He returned twenty minutes later, drew a folding knife on McKenzie, and smashed a glass display case in an attempt to seize an aluminum gun case which contained a .454 Casull revolver and ammunition. McKenzie drew his own revolver in response, and Mitchell fled to his van and drove off, only to be quickly apprehended. "I honor his strength of conviction," Russell Mitchell said of his son, "but two wrongs don't make a right. They were wrong for starving [Schiavo], but he was wrong for committing another immoral act trying to get her loose." Mitchell was charged with attempted armed robbery, aggravated assault and criminal mischief.[12][13]

Michael Schiavo's live-in girlfriend Jodi Centonze received hate mail letters.[14] Additionally, the wife of one of Michael Schiavo's brothers was targeted; a white car drove by her home three times over the course of several hours, and on the last pass the driver shouted to her, "If Terri dies, I'm coming back to shoot you and your family." Another one Michael Schiavo's brothers said he received death threats every time the case was in the news.[12]

On the day Schiavo died, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay criticized the legal system and said, "The time will come for the men responsible [the judges] for this to answer for their behavior." He also threatened to impeach the judges who refused to intervene on Schiavo's behalf. "We will look at an unaccountable, arrogant, out-of-control judiciary that thumbed their nose at Congress and the president," DeLay said. On April 14, 2005, DeLay held a news conference and issued an apology for the tone of his comments. He stated, "I said something in an inartful way, and I shouldn't have said it that way, and I apologize for saying it that way."

Judge Greer and his family were placed under protection by the U.S. Marshals due to death threats for having ruled against restoring Schiavo's feeding tube. Additionally, he was asked to leave his Southern Baptist congregation, Calvary Baptist Church, in Clearwater.[15]

During the final stages of the court battle in March 2005, around 30 individuals made a variety of complaints to the DCF, alleging various abuses.[16] These included Terri Schiavo being in pain from recent dental work, although she had not had any dental work for years prior to that, and sensory deprivation. DCF investigators found the claims to be groundless, stating that there were "no indicators" of abuse in any of the cases and concluding that "the preponderance of the evidence shows that Michael Schiavo followed doctors' orders regarding Ms. Schiavo's diagnosis of being in a persistent vegetative state and that he provided her with appropriate care."[17]


The Schindler Family and their supporters hold that this is a landmark case where a guardian's judgment was disputed, but ended with a court order to remove nutrition and hydration .

People on the other side of this issue, including the ACLU hold this was a private matter and the actions of the Schindlers interfered with the guardianship authority of her husband Michael Schiavo and the privacy rights of Terri Schiavo.

Advocates indicate that the rate of living will creation has increased since Terri Schiavo died.[18][19] An alternate mechanism is for a person to name a close relative or one whom they trust to speak for them, granting him or her power of attorney for medical issues.

Paul Schenck's organization, NPLAC, has commissioned a sculpture to Terri Schiavo entitled Compassion.[20]

The case prompted bishop William Skylstad, president of the USCCB, to ask the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith some questions as to the moral theology in such cases. The reply[21] of August 1, 2007, released by the Holy See on September 14, 2007, was, to the questions posed:

First question: Is the administration of food and water (whether by natural or artificial means) to a patient in a "vegetative state" morally obligatory except when they cannot be assimilated by the patient’s body or cannot be administered to the patient without causing significant physical discomfort?
Response: Yes. The administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life. It is therefore obligatory to the extent to which, and for as long as, it is shown to accomplish its proper finality, which is the hydration and nourishment of the patient. In this way suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented.
Second question: When nutrition and hydration are being supplied by artificial means to a patient in a "permanent vegetative state", may they be discontinued when competent physicians judge with moral certainty that the patient will never recover consciousness?
Response: No. A patient in a "permanent vegetative state" is a person with fundamental human dignity and must, therefore, receive ordinary and proportionate care which includes, in principle, the administration of water and food even by artificial means.

Schiavo's case has focused attention on end-of-life medical ethics.

Schindler family activism after Schiavo's death[edit]

The Schindler family started the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation in 2001 to oppose the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube. After her death, the foundation reorganized to address similar situations. In 2010 the foundation was renamed the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. Collin Raye became the network’s national spokesperson in September 2011.[22]


  1. ^ "Schiavo Politics, Up Close". CBS News. March 25, 2005. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Political Fallout Over Schiavo". CBS News. March 23, 2005. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Zogby Poll: Americans Not in Favor of Starving Terri Schiavo". Archived from the original on April 24, 2005. 
  6. ^ "USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll results". USAToday. May 20, 2005. Retrieved November 18, 2012. 
  7. ^ Saad, Lydia. "Congress Gets Thumbs Down for Stepping Into Schiavo Case". Gallup. Retrieved November 18, 2012. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Terri Schiavo's mom pleads: 'Give my child back'". March 30, 2005. Retrieved October 27, 2015. 
  10. ^ Vries, Lloyd (March 29, 2005). "Jackson Visits Schiavo Hospice". Retrieved October 28, 2015. 
  11. ^ "Man arrested in alleged Schiavo case murder plot". March 25, 2005. Retrieved October 28, 2015. 
  12. ^ a b c "Michael Schiavo relative reports threat". March 29, 2005. Retrieved October 28, 2015. 
  13. ^ Long, Jeff; Madhani, Aamer (March 26, 2005). "Suspect tried to steal gun to rescue Schiavo, cops say". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved October 27, 2015. 
  14. ^ Thompson, Jamie (March 26, 2005). "She's the other woman in Michael Schiavo's heart". The Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved November 2, 2015. 
  15. ^ "Newspaper Archives – – St. Petersburg Times". 
  16. ^ David Sommer (March 4, 2005). "DCF's Schiavo Petition Unsealed". APFN. Retrieved May 4, 2006. 
  17. ^ Tisch, Chris & Krueger, Curtis (June 4, 2005). "Schiavo abuse claims were old". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved January 1, 2006. 
  18. ^ "Schiavo Case Prompts More Living Wills" by Mitch Stacy, Associated Press Writer Thu Mar 30, 2006
  19. ^ Schiavo's condition difficult to evaluate March 23, 2005
  20. ^ ""Compassion" Terri Schindler Schiavo Memorial Sculpture". Archived from the original on June 26, 2007. Retrieved July 25, 2007. 
  21. ^ "Responses to Certain Questions Concerning Artificial Nutrition and Hydration". Retrieved September 15, 2007. ; "Commentary". Retrieved September 15, 2007. 
  22. ^ "Meet Collin Raye, Terri's Network National Spokesperson" (Press release). Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. Retrieved Oct 3, 2011.