For 13 years Terri Schiavo has lain in bed severely brain-damaged, fed by a tube and unable to tell the outside world whether she wants to live or die.
Her husband, Michael, says his wife once told him she would not want her life artificially extended. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, argue against the opinion of most experts that with extensive therapy she might to some extent recover. Even if she does not improve, they say, life in any form is worth preserving.
Yesterday Mrs Schiavo's husband prevailed. After a court judgment on Tuesday, doctors in Florida removed the feeding tube that has kept the 39-year-old woman alive. She is expected to die sometime within the next fortnight.
"We will try to have Mike or a representative there as much as possible after the feeding tube is removed, hopefully at all times," said Deborah Bushnell, a lawyer speaking on behalf of Mr Schiavo, who has not publicly commented in recent months.
But the case is not one of the usual right-to-die arguments which find their way into the courts and are decided by a judge following the letter of the law. It has sparked a bitter and prolonged fight between Mr Schiavo who has a new partner expecting their second child and his wife's parents.
The bitter feud has involved the courts and has drawn allegations that Mr Schiavo is profiteering from his wife's death, and even that he was responsible for the "persistent vegetative state" in which she has lain since the winter of 1990 when her heart inexplicably stopped and cut off the oxygen supply to her brain.
In recent days about two dozen campaigners have held a vigil outside the hospice in the Tampa suburb of Pinellas Park, demanding that Mrs Schiavo be kept alive. On Tuesday those protests took a new twist when Mrs Schiavo's parents, Mr and Mrs Schindler, disobeyed a court order and released to the media a video they had recorded of their daughter two years earlier.
The five-minute tape shows their daughter lying in bed moaning, moving and opening her eyes while Mrs Schindler holds her face close to that of her daughter, repeatedly saying the words "Ma, ma". During a press conference the Schindlers also claimed that their daughter almost fell out of her chair when a New Age healer told her over a telephone held to her ear that if she did not get up she would die.
"All we want is to bring Terri home," said Mr Schindler, who has spent many days recently pacing up and down outside the hospice. "Our objective is just to get her the treatment she deserves." Mr Schindler said the videotape they released was further proof that their daughter "is a live human being".
But the decision may have forfeited the Schindlers the chance to be with their daughter as she dies. George Greer, a Pinellas circuit court judge, had ordered that no recordings be made and according to Mr Schiavo's lawyers, their violation of the court order means that their visitation rights will be restricted and they will only be able to see their daughter when he, or one of his representatives, is present.
That threat appears to he real. On Tuesday afternoon Mr and Mrs Schindler and their son Robert, tried to visit Mrs Schiavo but were turned away by police. "Terri is going to die alone without her family," her brother told the local news channel.
Kenneth Goodman, director of the bioethics programme at the University of Miami, told The New York Times it had become the "ugliest end-of-life case ever". He added: "[The case] will underscore that it's never too early to talk to family members and loved ones about advance care wishes."
The Schindlers have claimed that before their daughter suffered the unexplained heart-stoppage, she had told them she wanted a divorce. They have even said he might have strangled her on the night she collapsed, claiming at least one doctor said she had a stiff neck when she was brought into hospital. They have also questioned why Mr Schiavo, his wife's legal guardian, did not spend the $1m he won in a medical malpractice suit on rehabilitative therapy for her.
Further allegations have come from three of Mrs Schiavo's former carers who have filed court affidavits that her husband tried to hasten her death by hiding her physical abilities, withholding medical care and possibly secretly injecting her with drugs.
In response, Mr Schiavo has alleged that the Schindlers want custody of their daughter, something they failed to secure in a separate court action, because they want some of the malpractice money. He has also dismissed the allegations that he harmed his wife.
Most doctors, including one appointed by the court, appear to support Mr Schiavo's claim that his wife will never recover. The Schindlers, supported in turn by some experts, believe that with therapy she could be taught to swallow for herself.
Dr Goodman said, however, that he believed Mrs Schiavo's parents were expecting too much from their daughter.
Such opinion has not dissuaded the Schindlers, who even yesterday were trying to overturn the court's ruling, appealing to the Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, to intercede. Mr Bush has said he was unable to intervene but added that he found the case "very troubling" and wanted Mrs Schiavo to live.
Those involved in the case have said that once the feeding tube is removed Mrs Schiavo will feel nothing and within days would "slowly start to fade away". Her husband was due to be at the hospice yesterday afternoon when the tube was removed but did not expect to be in the same room as his wife.
Her parents meanwhile refuse to accept what is happening to their daughter. Mr Schindler said: "In our eyes, it's murder."Reuse content