Campaigners pray for miracle as Schiavo enters final hours

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For the right-to-life demonstrators camped overnight with their banners outside the Woodside Hospice in Pinellas Park, the grey dawn brought only showers and bad news.

For the right-to-life demonstrators camped overnight with their banners outside the Woodside Hospice in Pinellas Park, the grey dawn brought only showers and bad news.

At about 7.30am, a federal judge in nearby Tampa ruled against an application to reinsert the feeding tube for Terri Schiavo, 41, the severely brain-damaged woman slowly dying in the hospice. It was in effect the last legal hope for Mrs Schiavo's parents and the growing sense of despair was palpable; the end appeared to near. Why was Mrs Schiavo being starved to death? "It's a good question," her brother, Bobby, told The Independent. "I don't know why either. I'd like to bring her out here now but I'm not allowed."

The simple and straightforward answer to the question, of course, is that several courts have backed the request of Mrs Schiavo's husband, Michael, to allow his wife to die, something he says she requested if she were ever to find herself on life support.

But the case of Mrs Schiavo, who suffered a massive heart attack 15 years ago which left her in what court-appointed doctors describe as a "persistent vegetative state", has long since stopped being either simple or straightforward. Rather, the struggle between her husband and her parents about whether she should live or die has become a bitter and unseemly row that has drawn various Christian and ultra-conservative interest groups into the fray.

Were it not so obviously tragic, it would be farce. It is a case in which the views of science have been cast aside, the opinions of the courts derided as a collective conspiracy, while, at the same time common sense has been thrown out of the window. If Mrs Schiavo did ask to be allowed to die with dignity all those years ago, her request has certainly not been granted.

"We're from Burnet, Texas," Gaylen Keys, an evangelical Christian said. "We dropped everything and drove here. It took us 24 hours." Mrs Keys' husband and three of her children had been arrested days before for trying to take Mrs Schiavo a glass of water. "Did you know they search the parents when they go to visit Terri to make sure they aren't taking her something to drink?" she said. "The police search them. It's barbaric."

Near by, a group of women were sitting in a circle of chairs reading the Bible. They said would not finish until it was completed. They were only at Genesis 41: 2. "Suddenly there came out of the river seven cows, fine looking and fat and they fed in the meadow." They vowed to press on until Revelation.

"Her family would dearly love to look after her," said Marilyn Chase, 65, whose husband runs a pro-life group in Orlando, Florida. "They love her. They would do anything."

Since a judge ruled a week ago that the feeding tube that has kept Mrs Schiavo alive for more than a decade should be removed, her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have made daily visits to their daughter, sequestered in a room at the red-brick hospice, close to Tampa on Florida's west coast. They emerge looking distraught and shaken to report that their daughter is slowly slipping away, her skin is tightening and becoming flaky, her eyes have become sunken, and her mouth and nose have become dry.

Rather than starving to death, medical experts say Mrs Schiavo will probably die from a massive heart attack caused by a build of toxins in her body as a result of dehydration. While some have suggested she could live for weeks without food or water, others have said she could die within days. "We're minute by minute right now," her sister, Suzanne Vitadamo, told reporters. "But it doesn't look like we have much left."

Many of the demonstrators here may be voicing common sense when they suggest transferring guardianship of Mrs Schiavo to her parents from her husband, but there is also a bewildering disregard for science and the opinion of experts. Many tell you that, with rehabilitation, Mrs Schiavo could make a significant improvement, and some are convinced she can speak or communicate in other ways.

Most medical scientists do not agree. Most doctors who have examined her say she is in a persistent vegetative state, a condition in which people have no awareness of themselves or the environment around them. Professor Jay Wolfson, of the University of South Florida, appointed by the courts to conduct an independent review, visited Mrs Schiavo every day for a month. He said she "sometimes groans, makes noises that emulate laughter or crying ... but her behaviour was never consistent or meaningful".

That is not good enough for the Christian groups who are camped outside the hospice, literally hoping for a miracle. Among them are parents who have brought their severely disabled children to show to the world. Paul and Jennifer Withey from Louisiana drove for 10 hours with their adopted daughter Amanda, 14, who has also been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state.

It was impossible to tell if Amanda was conscious of what was going on around her, but her parents insisted their daughter could communicate with them. "We just wanted to show people," said Mr Withey.

The one person who has not shown his face is Mrs Schiavo's husband, considered by the people here to be nothing less than the Devil. He is accused in the most vitriolic fashion of being interested only in obtaining his wife's life insurance money, of mistreating her over the years and of "having something to hide". Mr Schiavo, who turned down an offer of $1m £550,000 to keep her alive, has denied all such charges.

On Thursday night, as the federal court held an emergency session to consider the Schindlers' latest request to reinsert the tube, Mr Schiavo's lawyer, George Felos, hit back at the demonstrators. He said it was time for the Schindlers to give up their legal efforts. He said: "We believe it's time for that to stop as we approach this Easter weekend and that Mrs Schiavo be able to die in peace."

But it is clear that the Schindlers will fight to the very end. Shortly before noon, Mr Schindler appeared again outside the hospice, exhausted but dignified, to explain they had filed a further motion with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal. "Terri is weakening," he said. "She is down to her last hours. Something has to be done and it has to be done quick."