Disability Rights Groups File Amicus Brief in Terri Schiavo Case

By Liz Townsend

Disability rights groups, led by the organization Not Dead Yet, filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief February 21 in support of the life of Terri Schindler-Schiavo. Schindler-Schiavo, the Florida woman who is threatened with withdrawal of food and fluids, will be the subject of an appeals court hearing April 4.

A university-affiliated policy center, a patients' rights group, and two people who have survived serious brain injury joined the 12 disability rights groups in the brief.

"A judge's order to terminate the life of a woman with severe disabilities is not a private family matter," Max Lapertosa, attorney for the 16 amici, said in a news release. "Terminating Ms. Schiavo's life support would not be possible without the authority of the courts. This case reflects whether our society and legal system values the lives of people with disabilities equally to those without disabilities."

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer announced November 22 that Schindler-Schiavo's husband Michael could withdraw his wife's feeding tube, according to the St. Petersburg Times. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, strongly oppose the starvation and dehydration death of their daughter, and have been waging court battles with their son-in-law for almost five years.

Greer's order was stayed pending the review by the appeals court.

In the amicus brief, the groups contend that the judge's ruling did not follow the proper standards in determining that Schindler-Schiavo could be starved and dehydrated to death.

"Despite hearing evidence from doctors with 'very impressive credentials' that Ms. Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state, and despite finding that she exhibited signs of cognition and thought, the court authorized her death," the brief states.

"This was not--nor did it purport to be--a finding based on 'clear and convincing' evidence of Ms. Schiavo's desires.

"In such cases, a court may not substitute its own judgment but must find that Ms. Schiavo, after examining the conflicting medical evidence, would have had nothing less than a 'firm and settled commitment' to die. The lower court here made no such determination."

The groups also insist that Schindler-Schiavo's court-ordered death would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). "Treating people differently based on health or disability status violates the rights of people with disabilities under the ADA," the brief states. "Absent proof that it is truly the person's decision, withholding medical care based on the belief that he or she would rationally want to die because of a disability is discriminatory."