TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) – Florida legislators hastily approved a bill on Tuesday that would let the governor overrule a court order and force doctors to restore the feeding tube removed from a severely brain-damaged woman last week.
The controversial bill was a last-ditch effort to save Theresa “Terri” Schiavo, 39, who has been in a vegetative state for more than 13 years and whose family has feuded over whether she should be kept alive.
Following anguished debate on Monday and Tuesday, both legislative chambers passed it and sent it to Gov. Jeb Bush for his signature. He was expected to sign it Tuesday, giving him authority to intervene in the case immediately.
Republican state Sen. Tom Lee said senators felt political pressure to quickly approve the bill or be blamed “for killing Terri Schiavo.”
“Some people came up with a political brainstorm to use this woman’s life as a political football , to appeal to the Christian conservatives in this state who will never understand the details that construct this case,” Lee said.
Some lawmakers and scholars questioned whether the state constitution authorizes the legislature to give the governor power to overrule a court. U.S. law separates the powers of the executive, judicial and legislative branches.
“They’re trying to make it apply backwards to undo a decision that has already been reached by the court,” said Professor Bruce Winick, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Miami. “It seems to me a bit of a legislative interference with the courts, that violates our basic principles of the separation of powers.”
Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed on Oct. 15 after a five-year court battle between her husband and legal guardian, who has said she would not want to live in her condition, and her parents, who said she could be taught to swallow food and water on her own.
Terri Schiavo’s doctors say she is in a permanent vegetative state with no hope of recovery. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, was granted a court order to end her life support. Without the feeding tubes that have kept her alive since a heart attack left her comatose in 1990, Schiavo was expected to die within two weeks.
Responding to thousands of calls and e-mails urging him to act, Bush expanded the scope of a special legislative session to include the bill that would allow him to order the feeding tubes restored. Without it, he does not have authority to contravene the court order.
Terri Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, have appealed numerous times in state and federal court, including the U.S. Supreme Court, without success.
Democratic Rep. Skip Campbell, who voted for the bill, said the issue was whether an individual had the right to say, “We are going to withhold all food, we are going to just let you die slowly in a cruel fashion.”
Republican Sen. Bill Daniel, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, acknowledged it may not be constitutionally sound but said Schiavo’s life was a higher issue, adding, “This is the time where the envelope needs to be stretched a little bit.”
The bill was tailored for Schiavo’s case, but critics have said it could apply to other people. It would give the governor 15 days to intervene by allowing him to issue a one-time stay.
It would restrict intervention to cases in which the patient was in a permanent vegetative state and had hydration and feeding tubes removed on or before Oct. 15..