Pinellas Park, Fla. With a furious legal and political battle raging outside her hospice room, doctors removed Terri Schiavo's feeding tube Friday after a judge rebuffed an unprecedented attempt by Congress to keep the brain-damaged woman alive.
Schiavo, 41, could linger one to two weeks without the tube, provided no one intercedes -- as happened twice before.
The move came after Republicans on Capitol Hill used their subpoena power to demand that Schiavo be brought before a congressional hearing, saying removing the tube amounted to "barbarism." The attorney for Schiavo's husband shot back at a news conference, calling the subpoenas "nothing short of thuggery."
"It was odious, it was shocking, it was disgusting, and I think all Americans should be very alarmed about that," George Felos said.
The judge presiding over the case ruled in the husband's favor early Friday afternoon and rejected the request from House attorneys to delay the removal, which he had previously ordered to take place at 1 p.m. EST. Felos said Michael Schiavo was at his wife's side shortly after the tube was disconnected.
Late Friday, the House committee that issued the subpoenas filed an emergency request at the U.S. Supreme Court, asking justices to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube while the committee files appeals in the lower courts to have its subpoenas recognized.
The removal of the tube signals that an end may be near in a decade-long family feud between Schiavo's husband and her devoutly Roman Catholic parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. The parents have been trying to oust Michael Schiavo as their daughter's guardian and keep in place the tube that has kept her alive for more than 15 years.
Michael Schiavo says his wife told him she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Her parents dispute that, saying she could get better and that their daughter has laughed, cried, smiled and responded to their voices. Court-appointed physicians testified her brain damage was so severe that there was no hope she would ever have any cognitive abilities.
The family is still hoping for a long-shot legal victory to have the tube re-inserted.
It is unclear how much time the family will have. The effects of such feeding tubes being removed can be seen by the third or fourth day, when the patient's mouth begins to look dry and the eyes appear sunken. From days five to 10, respiration becomes irregular with periods of very fast and then very slow breathing. By the final days, kidney function declines, toxins begin accumulating in the body, and multiple organ systems fail from lack of nutrition.
Court-appointed doctors have said Schiavo will not feel any pain given her state, but her parents' doctors dispute that.
Several right-to-die cases across the nation have been fought in the courts in recent years, but few, if any, have been this drawn-out and bitter.
The case has garnered attention around the world and served as a rallying cry for conservative Christian groups and anti-abortion activists, who flooded members of Congress and Florida legislators with messages seeking to keep Schiavo alive.
Outside Schiavo's hospice, about 30 people keeping vigil dropped to their knees in prayer when word spread of the judge's ruling calling for removal of the tube.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush discussed the case with his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and members of the state's congressional delegation during his swing through Florida on Friday to discuss Social Security reform.
"We're continuing to monitor developments," McClellan said. "The president believes when there are serious questions or doubts in a case like this that the presumption ought to be in favor of life."
Gov. Jeb Bush said the judge's decision "breaks my heart" and noted that it often takes two decades for a death row inmate's appeals to go through the system.
"There's this rush to starve her to death," Bush said.
But Rep. Henry Waxman of California, senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, called the subpoenas a "flagrant abuse of power" and said they amounted to Congress dictating the medical care Terri Schiavo should receive.
"Congress is turning the Schiavo family's personal tragedy into a national political farce," Waxman said.
Schiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990 when a chemical imbalance apparently brought on by an eating disorder caused her heart to stop beating for a few minutes. She can breathe on her own, but has relied on the feeding and hydration tube to keep her alive.
Both sides accused each other of being motivated by greed over a $1 million medical malpractice award from doctors who failed to diagnose the chemical imbalance.
The Schindlers also said that Michael Schiavo wants their daughter dead so he can marry his longtime girlfriend, with whom he has young children. They have begged him to divorce their daughter, and let them care for her.
The tangled case has encompassed at least 19 judges in at least six different courts.
In 2001, Schiavo went without food and water for two days before a judge ordered the tube reinserted when a new witness surfaced.
When the tube was removed in October 2003, her parents and two siblings frantically sought intervention from Gov Jeb. Bush to stop her slow starvation. The governor pushed through "Terri's Law," and six days later the tube was reinserted.
That set off a new round of legal battles which culminated in September 2004 with the Florida Supreme Court ruling that Bush had overstepped his authority and declared the law unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court has been unwilling to hear arguments in the case.
On Feb. 25, Circuit Judge George Greer gave Michael Schiavo permission to order the removal of the feeding tube Friday.
"I have had no cogent reason why the (congressional) committee should intervene," Greer told attorneys in a conference call Friday, adding that last-minute action by Congress does not invalidate years of court rulings.
The attorney for the parents said he would likely file a new appeal early next week with a federal appeals court. He also said he hoped lawmakers in Washington or Tallahassee could agree on legislation that would force the tube to be reinserted. Similar efforts have failed in the past.
"I'm hopeful these men and women can get a strategy, get a focus, because we're running out of time," said attorney David Gibbs.