(AP) When Terri Schiavo collapsed 15 years ago, George H.W. Bush was in the White House, and she was just an ordinary insurance company clerk who liked stuffed animals and romance novels and was desperately trying to have children. By the time she died this past week, Bush’s son was president, and she had become the central figure in a national debate on the right to die and on who gets to decide.
How did it come to this? How did one brain-damaged woman’s intensely personal tragedy become a worldwide news story?
The answer is that it was able to “ripen slowly and gradually” as the cultural climate and media technology evolved around it, said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
The story had all the right ingredients. There were two families willing to litigate the case as far as it would go. And by the time that litigation reached its peak, a Republican-controlled Congress, a conservative Christian president and his brother, a conservative governor, were willing to intercede.
And there was the videotape that Terri Schiavo’s parents said showed the brain-damaged woman smiling at her mother’s voice and following her with her eyes, even though doctors said she was in a persistent vegetative state, with no real consciousness or chance of recovery.
“You put that all together and this thing simply blossomed into that pantheon of stories that make it to saturation-coverage status,” Thompson said.
Terri Schiavo was clinically dead when paramedics arrived at the St. Petersburg apartment she shared with husband, Michael, on Feb. 25, 1990, and her resuscitation did not merit a notice in the local newspaper.
Her story reached the front of the St. Petersburg Times’ city section on Nov. 8, 1990, under the headline “Beach party to aid comatose woman.” Months later, the city passed a resolution declaring Feb. 17, 1991, “Terri Schiavo Day” to raise money for an experimental operation.
Over the next three years, the case re-emerged in the media several times as Michael Schiavo filed and won a malpractice lawsuit against doctors he argued should have noticed the eating disorder believed to have been the cause of the chemical imbalance that stopped his wife’s heart.
Still, the story remained local even when Mary and Bob Schindler sued to have their son-in-law dismissed as their daughter’s guardian in 1993 and when Michael Schiavo filed a petition in 1998 to have his wife’s feeding tube removed, saying she wouldn’t want to be kept alive artificially.
It didn’t make national headlines until January 2000, during the first trial on Michael Schiavo’s request to remove the tube. Then, more than a year later, Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer ordered Schiavo’s feeding tube removed in April 2001. The tube was out only two days before another judge ordered it restored.
News coverage quickly died down again, but that all changed on Oct. 15, 2003, when the feeding tube was removed a second time after federal courts refused to intervene.
Protesters and reporters flocked to the hospice where Terri was a resident, and the Schindlers, who believed their daughter could improve, released the secretly recorded videotape.
Supporters of the Schindlers launched an Internet petition urging Gov. Jeb Bush to step in. Six days after the tube was removed, he signed into law an emergency act allowing the state to reinsert the tube.
Without the Internet, “I think Terri would have been dead in 2000,” said Schindler family supporter Pamela Hennessy.
Over the next year and a half, the case slipped in and out of the public’s consciousness as the state’s “Terri’s Law” was declared unconstitutional and the Schindlers invoked the name of Pope John Paul II in new court pleadings.
Then came the dramatic battle this year that would culminate in Terri Schiavo’s death. On Feb. 25, Greer refused to give the Schindlers any more time to pursue legal and medical options, and once again gave permission for the removal of the feeding tube.
The tube was removed for the third time on March 18 following much legal maneuvering. Three days later, Congress passed a bill that would allow the tube to be reconnected while a federal court reviewed the case.
President Bush signed the bill outside his White House bedroom and the Schindlers filed an emergency request with a federal judge in Tampa to have the tube reconnected.
Despite the legislation, however, federal courts refused to intervene.
As Terri Schiavo declined without nourishment or water, people gathered outside the hospice, calling it a battle of good against evil, a decision between a culture of life or one of death. Reporters and camera crews were on hand from around the world until she died this past week.
Bill Colby, who represented the family of Nancy Cruzan, a car crash victim who lived nearly eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that her feeding tube could be withdrawn, said that precedent-setting cases and others will “pale in comparison” to Schiavo’s legacy.
“The Schiavo case has reached the critical mass that it’s at the point where it will change the way we die in America,” he said.
With the aging of the Baby Boom generation and advances in medical technology, the nation was primed to be confronted with such issues, he said.