Hundreds gathered Sunday at the steps of the state's old Capitol to rally against a Pinellas County court order to remove Terri Schiavo's feeding tube Friday.
Some held placards with the words "Rose Rally for Terri" during a blustery, yet sunny, afternoon. Others cried during the event attended by Schiavo's family - parents Bob and Mary Schindler and brother Bob Jr. - and hosted by 12 state-level and national groups including Coral Ridge Ministries, the Center for Reclaiming America and Florida Right to Life.
Gary Cass, the executive director of the Center for Reclaiming America, told a group of more than 500 that the "eyes of the world are watching us." The center, an outreach organization of Coral Ridge Ministries, advocates for pro-life and religious-freedom issues.
"The world is watching how we treat the weak, the disabled, and it will reflect on the consciousness of our nation," he said. "We need to do the right thing. We're here to save Terri's life, but it's not just life for Terri, it's also for people like her."
Members of the 12 groups also are in Tallahassee to deliver long-stemmed roses to state legislators Tuesday. They plan to ask for support of a bill moving through the Florida House that would apply generally to all cases of incapacitated persons being kept alive through water and nutrition tubes. The bill would prohibit removing the tubes unless the person left clear written instructions to the contrary.
John Stemberger, the president and general counsel of the Florida Family Council based in Orlando, said the event was not a protest. Audience members and media came from areas of Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, among other states.
"We have a governor who will do everything necessary to save Terri," he said. "The House is creating a bill to intervene. So what do we have to protest here in Tallahassee?"
The bill Stemberger referred to could affect thousands of individuals in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. The bill (HB 701) by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, reflects the wishes of House Speaker Allan Bense and Senate President Tom Lee not to pass another bill tailored only to the circumstances of Terri Schiavo.
"Terri's Law," hurriedly passed in fall 2003, gave Gov. Jeb Bush the power to have Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted after it had been removed based on a court order. The Florida Supreme Court later overturned the law, and Bense and Lee said they prefer to take a more deliberative, broader approach to such highly emotional life-and-death cases.
"I certainly hope that whatever error I make is on the side of allowing someone to live rather than to die," Baxley said last week.
Stemberger also spoke against what he called the misleading information propagated by the media. He said Schiavo is not brain-dead, comatose or in a persistent vegetative state.
"She can laugh, cry, interact," he said. "She is not on artificial life support. She is fed from a tube. There is nothing dignified about death by dehydration or starvation."
Schiavo's father, Bob Schindler, told the crowd that he was overwhelmed by their concern for his daughter.
"As Friday approaches, the question we keep being asked is 'How do you feel?' We have faith," he said, his voice cracking. "God is in charge. We're being supported by you people. We're so appreciative of what you're doing. "
His wife Mary said she's been trying to teach her daughter to say "I love you."
"She can say the 'I,' but she's having trouble with the 'love you,'" she said. "She's doing OK. She's a strong lady."
Schiavo did not leave a "living will" stating her wishes in case of incapacity. Since a stroke 15 years ago, she has been declared to be severely brain-damaged and in a vegetative state. Her husband and legal guardian Michael Schiavo said letting her die follows what she told him she would want in such circumstances, but the woman's parents have been fighting to keep their daughter alive. They believe she could benefit from rehabilitation.
The Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition asked the audience to attend a vigil at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Upper Waller Park near the Capitol. Then supporters of the bill will visit legislators with roses.
"The roses are a reminder that if we don't feed and water roses, their beauty will fade," he said. "Likewise, if Terri is denied food and water, she'll fade."
Cheryl Winn and her family traveled from Jacksonville to attend the rally. She identifies with the Schindler family because after her brother's stroke, his insurance company refused to pay for rehabilitative therapy. He died in a nursing home three years ago.
"They said it was too much money to rehabilitate him and that they couldn't do it," she said. "People need to know about this problem. Allowing (Terri) to die is not right. She needs to be with the people who love her."
Meanwhile, last Wednesday's House Health Care Regulation Committee 7-4 vote for the bill split along party lines, as Democrats suggested the proposal was unwarranted government intrusion into families' private lives.
"I believe in life," said Rep. Yolly Roberson, D-Miami. "But I don't believe I have the right to tell someone to hold on or to let go."