Congress Can Act To Help Save Terri Schindler-Schiavo

For Immediate Release

For more information:
Megan Dillon (202) 626-8825

Thursday, March 3, 2005

Washington, D.C. -- The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) is calling on Congress to enact a bill to be introduced by Representative Dave Weldon, M.D. (R-Fl-15) that would give the Schindler family access to a federal court to argue for the life of their daughter, Terri Schindler-Schiavo.

"Congress can act to ensure a federal court hearing on whether or not Terri will die of starvation and dehydration," said Lori Kehoe, Congressional Liaison for NRLC’s Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics. "A proceeding known as the ‘writ of habeas corpus,’ which is protected by the U.S. Constitution, has been used for centuries to give a hearing to those whose liberty has been constrained by state courts in violation of the Constitution or federal laws. We call on all citizens to immediately contact their U.S. Senators and Representatives and urge them to support Representative Weldon’s bill to amend the Habeas Corpus Act to allow its use when a state court orders denial of food or fluids in cases like Terri’s."

Representative Weldon has announced that he will introduce the Incapacitated Person’s Legal Protection Act on Tuesday, March 8, 2005.

More information is available at

Questions And Answers On The Federal "Terri’s Law" -- The Incapacitated Person’s Life Protection Act

What is "habeas corpus"?

"Habeas Corpus" is the Latin name for a special procedure, dating back to England in the Middle Ages, by which a court can review whether someone is being unlawfully deprived of liberty. It was used by English courts long before Parliament gave it statutory form in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Brought over to the American colonies, it was considered such a fundamental source of protection of liberty that it was protected from suspension, except in cases like rebellion or invasion, by the U.S. Constitution.

Under "habeas corpus," how does a federal court review a state court decision?

When every state court effort has failed, the person denied liberty files a petition in federal district court, which considers whether federally protected rights have been violated and which, in appropriate circumstances, can conduct fact-finding procedures. The losing party in federal district court can appeal to a federal circuit court of appeals. The Supreme Court can choose to hear an appeal from the appellate court.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Terri’s case. Does that mean lower federal courts can’t do so?

No. When the Supreme Court chooses not to hear a particular appeal, that is not a ruling on the merits and sets no precedent. In fact, most habeas corpus proceedings in federal district court come after the Supreme Court has refused to consider a "direct" appeal from the highest state court.

Isn’t habeas corpus for people who are in jail?

Habeas corpus began as a means for prisoners to get court review of their detention, and the law refers to those who are "in custody." However, as the U.S. Supreme Court noted in a 1968 case, "[T]he use of habeas corpus has not been restricted to situations in which the applicant is in actual, physical custody. ... [I]n the state courts, as in England, habeas corpus has been widely used by parents disputing over which is the fit and proper person to have custody of their child .... History, usage, and precedent can leave no doubt that, besides physical imprisonment, there are other restraints on a man's liberty, restraints not shared by the public generally, which have been thought sufficient in the English-speaking world to support the issuance of habeas corpus."

Why does Congress need to act?

Although Terri’s case fits well conceptually with habeas corpus, it is unclear that the current statutes and precedents give her a right to it. Since the Constitution went into effect, Congress has frequently expanded, contracted, and modified both who has a right to habeas corpus and the standards for habeas corpus review. It has the clear constitutional authority to amend the law to make provision for cases like Terri’s.

When a case like Terri’s has been considered by the state courts, why should we add an extra layer of federal court review?

To avoid the danger that an innocent person might be put to death, those whom state courts have convicted of mass murder or other capital crimes have long had the recognized right to federal court habeas corpus review. If we accord that right to someone like John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy, shouldn’t we give at least equal protection to someone with a disability, charged with no crime, who is at risk of being starved and dehydrated to death?

NRLC is the nation's largest pro-life organization, with 50 state affiliates and approximately 3,000 local affiliates nationwide. NRLC works through legislation and education to protect those threatened by abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and assisted suicide.

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