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'May God give grace to our family'

Terri Schiavo dies amid legal, ethical battle


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Suzanne Vitadamo, Terri Schiavo's sister, speaks on behalf of the family Thursday.
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Terri Schiavo's brother and sister speak on behalf of their parents.

Fight continues even after Schiavo's death. CNN's Mary Snow reports.

Newly released video shows Schiavo in her hospice in 2002.
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Terri Schiavo
Florida

PINELLAS PARK, Florida (CNN) -- The sister of Terri Schiavo offered a message of thanks to the lawyers, the doctors who volunteered to help, the supporters and even the media outside the hospice in Pinellas Park where the brain-damaged woman died around 9 a.m. Thursday.

"May God give grace to our family," Suzanne Vitadamo told reporters.

Her brother, Bobby Schindler, spoke after her. "We have a message of forgiveness," he said. "Throughout this ordeal we are reminded of the words of Jesus' message on the cross: 'Forgive them for they know not what they do'"

The statement was an allusion to the bitter feud between his family, the Schindlers, and Michael Schiavo, Terri Schiavo's husband and legal guardian, in a case over the right to die and the determination of who decides in the absence of a living will. (Feud)

Schiavo died nearly two weeks after doctors, acting on an order issued by a state circuit court judge, removed her life-sustaining feeding tube. Her death came less than 12 hours after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected her parents' last appeal.

She was 41 and had been incapacitated since 1990 after suffering a heart attack that caused permanent brain damage.

Michael Schiavo was at her bedside cradling her, said George Felos, his attorney, who also was present. Others in the room were hospice caregivers; Michael's brother, Brian; and Deborah Bushnell, another attorney for Michael Schiavo.

"Mrs. Schiavo died a calm, peaceful and gentle death," Felos told reporters. (Bedside scene)

'Terri Schiavo has passed away'

News of the death was first publicly reported by Schindler family spokesman Brother Paul O'Donnell.

"It is with great sadness that -- it has been reported to us that Terri Schiavo has passed away," he said.

Demonstrators -- some of whom had been outside the hospice near St. Petersburg for weeks as the legal wrangling heated up -- grieved openly with gasps, sobs, songs and prayers. (Full story)

Two hours after her death, Schiavo's body was taken by a white van escorted by police motorcycles to the Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's office in Largo for an autopsy.

The autopsy report about the cause of death may not be available for several weeks.

Schiavo's husband requested the autopsy so the extent of her brain damage could be made public.

As approved in Greer's courtroom March 7, Michael Schiavo will have his wife's body cremated and interred in a family plot in Pennsylvania, where they were born and were married in November 1984.

Greer denied the request by Schiavo's parents to have her buried in Florida without being cremated. They are Roman Catholic and argued that cremation is inconsistent with their religion. The Vatican lifted its ban on cremation in 1963.

Reaction

President Bush offered his condolences. "Today millions of Americans are saddened by the death of Terri Schiavo. ... I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected." (Congressional leaders react)

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who intervened in the case in 2003 to authorize continuing nourishment for Terri Schiavo, issued a written statement.

"Many across our state and around the world are deeply grieved by the way Terri died. I feel that grief very sharply as well," his statement said.

"I remain convinced, however, that Terri's death is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society. For that, we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us."

At the Florida Capitol building in Tallahassee, legislators observed a moment of silence at the news of Schiavo's death.

Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion activist group Operation Rescue and the Christian Defense Coalition, led a memorial service for Schiavo Thursday night at the Praise Cathedral Renewal Center in Pinellas Park.

From the Vatican in Rome, Italy, where Pope John Paul II's own health condition is rapidly deteriorating, Cardinal Renato Martino, prefect for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, called Schiavo's death "nothing else but murder."

"It is a victory of the culture of death over life," he said. "This is not a natural death, it is an imposed death."

Vatican spokesman Joachin Navarro-Valls said "exceptions cannot be allowed to the sacredness of life."

Legal wrangling

Hours before Schiavo's death, the Pinellas County Probate Court released nine of 11 videotapes of the brain-damaged woman from 2002. (Full story)

Late Wednesday night, the Schindlers lost what their lawyer described as their "last meaningful legal appeal" in their desperate battle to have their brain-damaged daughter's feeding tube reinserted.

It was the second time in a week the high court had refused to hear the case and the sixth time since 2001.

In all, the Schindlers lost more than 30 rulings in state and federal courts. They argued their daughter did not want to die and sought guardianship of her in nearly constant court battles against Michael Schiavo since 1998.

Schiavo has said that his wife wouldn't have wanted to live in her condition -- what Florida courts have deemed a "persistent vegetative state."

The parents disputed that diagnosis and believed Terri Schiavo's condition could have improved with therapy. (Schiavo case timeline)

Schiavo collapsed in her home in 1990, suffering from heart failure that led to severe brain damage because of lack of oxygen.

Her husband has said she suffered from bulimia, an eating disorder, that resulted in a potassium deficiency that triggered the heart failure.

CNN's Rich Phillips, David Mattingly, Susan Candiotti, Randi Kaye and Alessio Vinci contributed to this report.


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