A Florida State judge permitted the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube today, despite two last-ditch delay tactics from Capitol Hill. The Senate had tried to make a law that would have granted “any parent of Theresa Marie Schiavo”the special right to argue her case in federal court, and Congress issued a subpoena asking that Schiavo appear before a congressional committee. Experts say that if the tube stays out, Schiavo will die within the next couple of weeks. Slate readers have asked several questions about these latest developments:
Who’s paying for her care?
Schiavo resides at a nonprofit hospice that has assumed part of the cost of her care. Medicaid pays for the rest. According to this AP story, keeping her alive costs about $80,000 per year, and at least $350,000 of the malpractice settlement awarded to Schiavo and her husband in 1992 has been spent on her care. Florida Medicaid normally offers hospice coverage for those with a life expectancy of no more than six months, but Schiavo has received assistance from the state for the last two years.
How can you live for weeks without food?
You can live for more than a month without food, if you have water. But with the tube removed, Schiavo will lose both food and water. Without water, people can die within a few days, depending on their environment and what they’re doing. Working hard in hot weather results in the rapid loss of water, but persistently vegetating in an air-conditioned room can draw out the process.
Can Congress pass a law that applies only to specific, named individuals?
Yes, it can, provided the law doesn’t penalize or punish a single person or group. A piece of legislation that punishes someone without a trial is called a “bill of attainder,” which is explicitly forbidden by the Constitution. Schiavo’s husband, Michael, could have challenged a federal law that addressed only this particular case by arguing that it penalized him without a trial. He could also have challenged the Senate’s proposed law on the grounds that Congress was flouting the separation of powers (by choosing to overturn a specific judicial decision) or that the new law inappropriately granted Schiavo’s parents the right to pursue their claims in federal court.
How do you respond to a congressional subpoena if you’re in a persistent vegetative state?
If you don’t respond, you can get cited for contempt of Congress, although that’s unlikely in this case. The idea wasn’t to throw Schiavo in prison; it was to prolong her life, which could happen if a judge ordered the reinsertion of the feeding tube for the duration of the congressional inquiry. In that scenario, Michael Schiavo could challenge the subpoena on Terri’s behalf and try to get a court to lift the injunction.
Explainer thanks Steven Gey of Florida State University, Kenneth Goodman of the University of Miami, and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University for sharing their expertise, and the following readers for their questions: Josh Hummert, Brian Murray, Kristy Piccinini, and Tom Sklar-Blake.