A new documentary, Between Life & Death: Terri Schiavo’s Story, explores the case that gripped a nation
A new documentary about Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years before her death in 2005, is shining a new light on the familial legal battle that gripped the nation.
Between Life & Death: Terri Schiavo’s Story, which is streaming now on Peacock, "explores how the 'pro-life' movement harnessed Terri’s story and examines competing ethical positions on bodily autonomy, the concerns of marginalizing and ventriloquizing feminist voices, and the deep painful sorrow of anticipatory grief that occurs before an impending loss," according to a press release.
The painful family dispute placed the contentious right-to-die debate in focus. Michael, Terri's husband, sought to disconnect his wife's feeding tube while her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, challenged him in court for years to keep her alive.
Here's everything to know about her story.
Terri ends up in vegetative state after cardiac arrest
In February 1990, Terri, then 26, suffered a cardiac arrest at her St. Petersburg home, depriving her brain of oxygen, as PEOPLE reported in 2006. She was in a coma for several weeks, but then opened her eyes.
Though Michael previously told PEOPLE he felt hopeful when she first woke up, doctors told him that she was in a persistent vegetative state — "a clinical condition of complete unawareness of the self and the environment, accompanied by sleep-wake cycles with either complete or partial preservation of hypothalamic and brain-stem autonomic functions," according to The New England Journal of Medicine.
Terri was unaware of her surroundings, though she retained a sleep-wake cycle and some instinctive movements, like blinking, PEOPLE reported at the time. She was kept alive with a feeding tube in her abdomen and was transferred to a care facility where she received neurological testing, speech therapy and physical therapy.
Michael told PEOPLE in 2006 that Terri's internist eventually told him the crushing news that she was going to remain in a vegetative state for "the rest of her life." Citing a previous conversation he had with his wife, he claimed she wouldn't want to live like that.
He then transferred Terri to a nursing home and her parents began their fight to remove Michael as her legal guardian.
In May 1998, Michael filed a petition to remove her feeding tube, but the Schindlers fought it, ushering in the complicated legal challenge as Terri had no living will, PEOPLE reported in 2005.
The legal battle over Terri's fate
Throughout the legal fight, courts continued to agree with Terri's irreversible diagnosis and in October 2003, Terri's feeding tube was removed.
"No one was admitted in the room as a doctor and nurse removed the tube," he told PEOPLE in 2006. "I arrived shortly thereafter and remained in the hospice until the evening after Terri passed away. In front of the hospice, it sounded like a rowdy tailgate party. There were all sorts of demonstrators, ranging from elderly women who prayed silently to a raucous group shouting 'Let Terri live!' For everyone who didn't know Terri, this was a theatrical moment filled with political drama. For me, it meant my wife was going to die."
But about a week after the tube was removed, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — the middle child of former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush — signed Terri's Law, allowing him to order the feeding tube to be reinserted. The legislation was subsequently deemed unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court, per The New York Times.
In March 2005, a federal judge declined the Schindlers' petition to have Terri's feeding tube reinserted, leading the Schindlers' attorney to file an appeal, which was ultimately denied, PEOPLE previously reported.
With no living will to guide the family's decision, the two sides traded anecdotes to buttress their convictions. As PEOPLE reported in 2005, Michael told CNN's Larry King that Terri "said 'No tubes for me.'...I made a promise to Terri."
Michael's brother also claimed Terri expressed horror in 1988 after his grandmother was briefly hooked to a respirator. However, that account was dismissed by Terri's brother, Bobby Schindler: "It would be totally out of character for Terri to make a death wish."
By 2005, former President George W. Bush moved quickly to sign a bill that would allow Schiavo’s case to be heard in federal courts, Time reported. But the courts sided with Michael, and the Supreme Court even declined to intervene. Thirteen days after her feeding tube was removed, Terri died on March 31, 2005.
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Speaking with PEOPLE at the time, Michael described their last moments together. "I was sobbing as I tried to tell her it was okay, it was over. I remember saying 'you can be at peace now.' The hospice workers bathed her, then I went back into the room with her. I knelt down, gave her a final kiss, and whispered that I love her, and we'd see each other again. As strange as it seems to say it now, I was happy for her. She was finally free."
The aftermath of Terri's legal case
After Terri's death, a conflict remained over where the 41-year-old would be buried. PEOPLE reported in 2005 that her parents sought to have her buried in Florida, where they lived, while Michael planned to have her cremated and buried near Philadelphia, where she grew up.
Days after Terri died, her body was cremated, and her remains were given to Michael, per the Associated Press. As PEOPLE previously reported, Michael’s decision to have her body cremated angered her family, who had wanted a Catholic burial.
They were also reportedly upset that her grave read, “I kept my promise.”
“Obviously, that’s a real shot and another unkind act toward a grieving mom and dad,” said David Gibbs, an attorney for the Schindlers, per the AP in 2005.
Bobby Schindler, Terri's brother, told the Daily News in 2015 that the family has never "gotten off the roller coaster." He is currently the president of a nonprofit called the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, which provides care to "medically vulnerable" patients and their families.
Meanwhile, Jon Eisenberg, one of Michael's appellate lawyers, tells PEOPLE that his client "has a family and a rewarding career in health care" and "returned to private life." (Michael married Jodi Centonze, whom he met in a dentist's office while Terri was in a nursing home, in 2006.)
Revisiting the right-to-die case in 2023
In the years since Terri's death, 73% of U.S. adults were in support of a doctor being allowed "to end a terminally ill patient's life by painless" means if the patient requested it — the highest in favor since 2005, per Gallup in 2017. "Weekly churchgoers" and conservatives are the "least supportive," per the survey.
Still, among the divisions that intensified during the legal fight over Terri's life, the new documentary examines "the rare collision of political, religious, and medical forces that reshaped the American legal system," per the press release.
Between Life & Death: Terri Schiavo’s Story is currently streaming on Peacock.
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