Jeb Bush Was Right to Try to Save Terri Schiavo

The usual media suspects are excoriating Jeb Bush—again—for trying to help save my sister Terri Schiavo’s life. An article last month in the Tampa Bay Times, “The Audacity of Jeb Bush,” later quoted in a New Yorker article titled “The Punisher,” accused the former Florida governor of going “all in on Schiavo” and running roughshod over Florida state law.

I suppose attacks like these go with the territory of what appears to be a presidential run by Mr. Bush. But it is telling that the attacks never tell my sister’s whole story, or identify the coalition of liberals and conservatives, believers and nonbelievers, that tried to prevent her slow death by dehydration.

The effort to protect Terri went all the way to the Supreme Court. One side comprised a pope (John Paul II), a president (George W. Bush) and a governor (Jeb Bush), as well as Democratic leaders (former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, for example), and many ordinary Americans who didn’t believe that providing food and water for a living human being with a brain injury could reasonably be regarded as extraordinary care.

On the other side stood Terri’s legal husband—then living with his fiancée and their two children—the vast majority of mainstream media outlets, America’s powerful “right-to-die” lobby and, sadly, one Florida circuit judge.

It was enough to make her dead. On March 18, 2005, Terri was no longer permitted to receive food or water, causing her to slowly starve and dehydrate, just as anyone would. Despite my family’s efforts—incredibly, we were denied even the right to put ice chips on her lips and tongue to relieve her torment—Terri died on March 31.

The case against Jeb Bush seems to be that he exceeded his constitutional authority and, having done so, revealed the kind of rogue president he would be if elected. Actually, he was following a duly passed Florida law later found to be unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court. That’s not acting unconstitutionally. Once the statute was invalidated, Mr. Bush followed the law.

The facts in Terri’s case were rarely presented to the American public in a clear, unbiased and nonideological manner, a pattern that has only grown more pronounced as time passed. Ten years later, the media still tread the same well-worn path, presenting a false paradigm of a supposedly loving husband versus interfering theocrats.

This is a good opportunity to set the record straight about what the governor was legally permitted to do and what he actually did.

Terri was a live human being who had a brain injury. She was minimally conscious. But contrary to many media reports, her autopsy did not prove that she was in a “persistent vegetative state,” or PVS. To that question, several neurologists submitted affidavits to the court and were willing to testify that Terri was not, in fact, unconscious or in a PVS. Among those neurologists was the widely respected Dr. William P. Cheshire, who examined Terri before her death. They were, however, denied the opportunity to testify by the now retired Circuit Court Judge George Greer because their testimony was deemed new evidence. Clearly, they should have been allowed to testify in a case involving life and death.

These physicians were also prepared to document cases in which brain-injured patients became, with therapy, capable of moderate levels of consciousness and, in some instances, regained some level of functionality. There are also cases on record where such patients regained full functionality and today live active, independent lives.

So what did Gov. Bush actually do that was supposedly so egregious? Under what was known as “Terri’s Law,” he was legally permitted to seek “to clarify the facts” in a court case that appeared to many to have clearly defective judicial orders and irregularities. That is what he did—for which he was immediately and viciously attacked.

Having clarified the facts, and having been advised that without food and water Terri would slowly starve and dehydrate to death, he sought as governor to have her case “reviewed”—very much as he had been asked to do, and did, in capital-punishment cases.

This same motive prompted the U.S. Congress to get involved. Their reasoning was that if mass murderers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy could have their cases thoroughly reviewed by federal courts in cases that had run through the normal appeals process at the state level—surely an innocent, brain-injured woman facing a death sentence ought to be given the same basic right. This view received unanimous consent in the Senate, including from then-Sen. Barack Obama, which he later characterized as a “mistake.”

Today, a scant 10 years later, more and more families are finding themselves in the same situation that our family faced. Life-and-death decisions for their loved ones are being taken out of their hands and being put in the hands of health-care professionals and hospital-review boards. These families are frightened and, increasingly, voiceless. They know their loved ones are alive, even if minimally conscious, and deserve to live. With the proper therapeutic protocols, the condition of these persons can and in some cases does indeed improve over time.

Many family members are willing to take on the responsibility of care and the long, hard work of rehabbing their loved ones to higher levels of consciousness. All they ask is for the right to do so. All Jeb Bush did was try to help win that right for me and my family. Sadly for us, and for Terri, he couldn’t.


Mr. Schindler is the executive director of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, which works to protect the lives of the medically vulnerable and disabled from the threat of euthanasia.