US waits as federal judge mulls fate of comatose woman

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The Independent US

After a night of extraordinary political drama on Capitol Hill, the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case was last night in the hands of a federal judge, who was deciding whether to order a feeding tube be restored to keep the brain-damaged woman alive.

After a night of extraordinary political drama on Capitol Hill, the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case was last night in the hands of a federal judge, who was deciding whether to order a feeding tube be restored to keep the brain-damaged woman alive.

District Judge James Whittemore, sitting in Tampa, Florida, did not immediately make a ruling after a two-hour hearing, and gave no indication on when he might act. "I will not tell you where, how or when it will be," he said of his decision.

Whatever his ruling, an immediate appeal is thought likely.

He was sitting less than 14 hours after George Bush signed into law an emergency bill rushed though Congress in a rare Palm Sunday session. The measure "will allow federal courts to hear a claim on behalf of Terri Schiavo for violation of her rights relating to the withholding ... of food, fluids, or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life," said the President, who interrupted an Easter break at his Texas ranch to return to Washington.

David Gibbs, an attorney for Ms Schiavo's parents, told the court yesterday that forcing her to die by starvation and dehydration would be a mortal sin under her Roman Catholic beliefs. "It is a complete violation to her rights and to her religious liberty," he said.

But the judge told Mr Gibbs that he was not persuaded. "I think you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that you have a substantial likelihood" of the suit succeeding, said Mr Whittemore, who was nominated by Bill Clinton in 1999.

George Felos, one of the attorneys for Ms Schiavo's husband Michael, told the judge the case had been aired thoroughly in state courts and that forcing Ms Schiavo to endure another re-insertion of the tube ­ an operation performed twice before ­ would violate her civil rights. In anticipation that the judge would order feeding be resumed, an ambulance was ready to take Ms Schiavo from the hospice in Pinellas Park, near Tampa, where she has been living to a hospital for the tube to be re-inserted.

The tube was removed on Friday afternoon on the order of a Florida state court. If it is not restored Ms Schiavo ­ who has been in a permanent vegetative state since suffering a heart attack that starved her brain of oxygen in 1990 ­ would die within two to three weeks.

The case went to the federal judge after the Republican-led Congress responded to the pleas of her family and intervened. A first attempt to approve a bill by unanimous consent was blocked by a handful of Democrats, but after the legislation went through the Senate, the House passed the bill after an impassioned debate by 203 to 58 on a roll-call vote at 12.42am yesterday.

Six Republicans and 52 Democrats voted against, less because of a belief that the parents' wish should be overruled as from the belief that Congress was interfering in a matter settled by a series of legal rulings in Florida.

That has been the emphatic, long-held view of Mr Schiavo, who insists his wife told him before she suffered her brain damage that she would never want to be artificially kept alive in such circumstances.

"This has been heard by 20 judges; the US Supreme Court has heard this," he said yesterday. "There's no doubts here, and Mr Bush should be ashamed of himself." According to an ABC News poll, most Americans agree, with 70 per cent of respondents saying that Congress was wrong to intervene.

The case has also attracted the attention of the Vatican. "Who can decide whether to pull the plug as though we were talking about some domestic appliance which was broken or no longer being used?" its newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, wrote in an editorial.

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