PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (AP) — With her husband and parents feuding to the bitter end and beyond, Terri Schiavo died yesterday, 13 days after her feeding tube was removed in a wrenching right-to-die dispute that engulfed the courts, Capitol Hill and the White House and divided the country.

Angela Cesere
Demonstrators hold up signs in the glare of television lights yesterday near Woodside Hospice in Florida, where Terri Schiavo passed away earlier in the day. (AP PHOTO)

Cradled by her husband, Schiavo, 41, died a “calm, peaceful and gentle death” at about 9 a.m., a stuffed animal under her arm, flowers arranged around her hospice room, said George Felos, Michael Schiavo’s attorney.

No one from her side of the family was with her at the moment of her death. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, were not at the hospice, Felos said. And her brother had been expelled from the room at Michael Schiavo’s request moments before the end came.

The death of the severely brain-damaged woman brought to a close what was easily the longest, most bitter — and most heavily litigated — right-to-die dispute in U.S. history.

“Mr. Schiavo’s overriding concern here was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity,” said Felos, who was also present at the death.

But the Rev. Frank Pavone, one of the Schindlers’ spiritual advisers, called her death “a killing,” adding: “And for that we not only grieve that Terri has passed but we grieve that our nation has allowed such an atrocity as this and we pray that it will never happen again.”

Schiavo suffered brain damage in 1990 and fell into what court-appointed doctors called a persistent vegetative state, with no real consciousness or chance of recovery, after a chemical imbalance caused her heart to stop. She had left no written instructions in the event she became disabled.

Her husband argued that she told him long ago that she would not want to kept alive artificially. Her parents disputed that, and held out hope for a miracle recovery for a daughter they said still laughed with them and struggled to talk.

Pinellas County Circuit Judge George W. Greer sided with her husband and authorized the removal of the feeding tube keeping her alive. It was disconnected March 18.

During the seven-year legal battle, federal and state courts repeatedly rejected extraordinary attempts at intervention by Florida lawmakers, Gov. Jeb Bush, Congress and President Bush on behalf of her parents.

Supporters of her parents, many of them anti-abortion activists and political conservatives, harshly criticized the courts. Many religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, said the removal of sustenance violated fundamental religious tenets.

About 40 judges in six courts were involved in the case at one point or another. Six times, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. As Schiavo’s life ebbed away, Congress rushed through a bill to allow the federal courts to take up the case, and President Bush signed it March 21. But the federal courts refused to step in.

The case prompted many people to ponder what they would want if they, too, were in such a desperate medical situation, and many rushed to draw up living wills. The case also led to a furious debate over the proper role of government in life-and-death decisions, and whether the Republicans in Congress violated their party’s principles of limited government and deference to the states by getting involved.

In Washington on yesterday, the president was careful to extend condolences to Schiavo’s “families” — meaning both Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers — even though he backed efforts to reconnect her feeding tube.

“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, especially those who live at the mercy of others,” the president said.

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