updated 4/1/2005 6:14:53 PM ET 2005-04-01T23:14:53

Guest: Dr. Warner Spitz, Beatrice Engstrand, Arthur St. Andre

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  Hi, everyone.  Terri Schiavo is dead tonight.  But the bitter feud between her husband and parents rages on.  And in Rome, Pope John Paul II takes a turn for the worse.  Tonight, a special live edition of the program about justice.

Good evening to those on the West Coast.  On the East Coast, good morning.  Pope John Paul II is suffering another health crisis.  Late last night, Rome time, the 84-year-old pontiff developed a high fever.  He‘s being treated with antibiotics at the Vatican.  MSNBC‘s Steven Weeke has the latest from Rome—Steven.

STEVEN WEEKE, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Dan, good morning.  The clock here at St. Peter‘s is tolling 7:00 AM.  Morning has broken here in Rome.  And we are looking at a live picture of the pope‘s bedroom window, the camera focused on the apostolic palace right now, where the windows were dark just until a little while ago, though they were lit until very late last night because of the latest downturn in a health crisis that has been protracted today, two months ago today, when it started on February 1.

Now, what happened yesterday is that as a result of the current situation of his convalescence for the tracheotomy that took place on the 24th of February, the pope suffered a spike in fever caused, they say, by a urinary tract infection.  This was simultaneous with a drop in blood pressure.  And there were some critical moments in the papal apartment.  There was word earlier in the afternoon in Rome that he would be taken back to the hospital.  Then there were alerts, and doctors joined the team that‘s already in place at St. Peter‘s, in the apostolic palace, to take care of the pope.

They put him—Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, told us they put him immediately on a high-strength antibiotic therapy.  And the word that we‘re getting this morning, overnight and then this morning, just a little while ago, on Vatican radio, they said that the pope is responding well to the antibiotic therapy and that his situation, his condition, seems to be stabilizing.  The fever was very worrisome.  He reached a level of temperature of 104 Fahrenheit last night.  So the fact that he‘s stabilizing is good news.

The other thing that happened just the day before, was that he was—it was announced he would be fed through a nasal gastric tube.  There are reports that he has lost as much as 40 pounds since the tracheotomy.  So that‘s—we‘re talking about a pound a day, pretty much, since the 24th of March.  So a critical situation here in Rome.  But the good news is that he may have stabilized his condition right now—Dan.

ABRAMS:  All right, Steven Weeke.  Thanks very much.  Appreciate it.  We will come back to you if anything changes again, any developments, of course that will—we‘ll head right back to you.

Now to the death of Terri Schiavo.  She died this morning just after 9:00 AM Eastern, 13 days after her feeding tube was removed.  She was 41.  An autopsy is planned within 24 hours.  It should provide some answers to persistent questions about the extent of her brain damage.  But tonight, the families continue to fight even about what should happen to Terri‘s body now.

Here‘s more with MSNBC‘s Lisa Daniels, outside the hospice where Terri Schiavo died.  So Lisa, it looks like it‘s pretty empty there, but it seems that the battles continue.

LISA DANIELS, MSNBC:  Yes.  That‘s right, Dan.  Actually, Dan, I want to show you something that I have not seen since I got here.  If we can take the camera over my shoulder, you will see no protesters, absolutely none, in the lot right next to the hospice.  They have all gone home.  The only things remaining are the signs, the flowers, little mementos that were spontaneously gathered by people here throughout the week.  There is nobody here.

Of course, a few hours ago, there was a big crowd of protesters, actually, Dan.  They were holding vigils.  They were saying prayers.  And a few hours before that, they actually went down the street from here to a local church for a memorial service for Terri Schiavo.  It wasn‘t just for close friends and family, it was also for all these protesters who have come from so far, who came here to pay their respects and to support the Schindler family.

We saw Bob Schindler.  He was at the memorial service.  He went to the podium, as you‘re seeing, and he thanked the crowd and also told them that Terri thanks them, as well.

Now, the events today are to numerous to recap, but I will say that most of it was the two camps disputing what happened in the moments before Terri Schiavo died and the moments after she died.  And it really is remarkable.  As you said, Dan, the fight is going to continue.  Perhaps—we don‘t know that, but there is a fight over the funeral arrangements.  Again, in the Schiavo camp, Michael Schiavo wants Terri Schiavo‘s body to be cremated, her remains buried on a family plot right outside of Philadelphia.  The Schindler family wants her body to be buried in the Roman Catholic tradition, and they want that to be—they want her body to be buried not far from here in Florida.

It‘s just remarkable, Dan.  It‘s only been 15 hours, almost to the minute, that Terri Schiavo has passed away.  This morning, such a flurry of activity, such a sad moment when Terri Schiavo died.  And tonight, it‘s just eerily silent.  That‘s the very latest from Pinellas Park.  Dan, back to you.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Lisa Daniels, once again, thank you.

Terri Schiavo‘s final years a painful and public ordeal both for her husband and her family members.  Here‘s what her sister and brother said hours after her death.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUZANNE VITADAMO, TERRI SCHIAVO‘S SISTER:  As you are aware, Terri is now with God and she‘s been released from all earthly burdens.  After these recent years of neglect at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and care for her, she is finally at peace with God for eternity.  We are speaking on behalf of our entire family this evening, as we share some thoughts and messages to the world regarding our sister and the courageous battle that was waged to save her life from starvation and dehydration.

We have a message for the supporters and for people praying worldwide.  Please continue to pray that God gives grace to our family as we go through this very difficult time.  We know that many of you never had the privilege to personally know our wonderful sister, Terri.  But we assure you that you can be proud of this remarkable woman who has captured the attention of the world.

Following the example of the Lord Jesus, our family abhors any violence or any threats of violence.  Threatening words dishonor our family, our faith and our sister, Terri.  We would ask that all of those who support our family be completely kind in their words and deeds toward others.

We have a message to the media.  We really appreciate you taking Terri‘s case to the nation.  Please afford our family privacy to grieve at this time.  The patience and graciousness of the on-site media here at hospice has been deeply appreciated by our family.

We have a message to the many government officials whose tried to save Terri.  Thank you for all that you‘ve done.  Our family will forever be grateful to all of the outstanding public servants who have tried to save Terri.

We have a message to all the religious leaders who tried to help Terri.  Thank you to all people of faith who demonstrated love for Terri and strength of conviction to defend the sacredness of all human life as a precious gift from God.  Our family is highly honored that the holy father, Pope John Paul II, would speak out so boldly on behalf of our sister, Terri.

BOBBY SCHINDLER, TERRI SCHIAVO‘S BROTHER:  We have a message of forgiveness.  Throughout this ordeal, we‘re reminded of the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Our family seeks forgiveness for anything that we have done in standing for Terri‘s life that has not demonstrated the love and compassion required of us by our faith.

We have a message to the parents worldwide.  Our family would encourage parents to spend time with their children and to cherish each day and every moment of each and every day with them as a precious gift from God.

We have a message to Terri from her family.  As a member of our family unable to speak for yourself, you spoke loudly.  As a member of our family unable to stand under your own power, you stood with a grace and a dignity—a dignity that made your family proud.  Terri, we love you dearly, but we know that God loves you more than we do.  We must accept your untimely death as God‘s will.

Terri, your life and legacy will continue to live on, as the nation is now awakened to the plight of thousands of voiceless people with disabilities that were previously unnoticed.  Your family intends to stand up for the other Terris around this nation, and we will do all that we can to change the law so others won‘t face the same fate that has befallen you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Terri‘s husband, Michael Schiavo, has kept a low profile since his wife died this morning, but his attorney, George Felos, spoke this afternoon, describing Terri‘s last hours.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE FELOS, MICHAEL SCHIAVO‘S ATTORNEY:  Mr. Schiavo, his brother, Brian, myself and attorney Bushnell spent the night—spent the night with Mrs. Schiavo.  And let me also—let me also state, throughout this, throughout this entire process, were literally angels of mercy of the health care providers, the workers of the hospice.  It was just unbelievable to see the incredible amount of compassion, warmth and love and caring and skill which they used throughout this entire process to help Mrs. Schiavo have a death with dignity.

She died at approximately 9:00 AM.  Her husband was—her husband was present by her bed, cradling her.  His brother, Brian, was there.  I was there, along with attorney Bushnell, and many workers and caregivers from the hospice of the Florida suncoast were there, as well.  Mrs. Schiavo died a calm, peaceful and gentle death.  At that time of death, approximately 9:00 o‘clock, the people in the room stayed with her body for a period of time.

Before Terri‘s body was removed from the facility, there was a gathering of at least 30, minimum 30 to 40 hospice workers who formed a circle around the body, which was now on the medical examiner‘s gurney before being removed from hospice.  It was a very emotional scene.  You have to remember that many of these hospice workers have cared for Terri for over a five-year period.  I can‘t describe in words their dedication.  There were nurses and workers who refused to go home because, at the end of their shift Terri, hadn‘t passed away yet, and wanted to be with her when they—when she died.

The hospice workers, as well as law enforcement and the personnel from the Florida—from the medical examiner‘s office, stood around Terri.  The hospice chaplain said prayers.  It was a very—it was a very emotional moment for many—for many of us there.

ABRAMS:  And Michael Schiavo‘s brother, Scott, spoke, as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT SCHIAVO, MICHAEL SCHIAVO‘S BROTHER:  Terri‘s at rest now, and that‘s the most important thing to all of us in my family, that Terri is at peace, that she‘s—you know, she‘s in a better place.  She‘s not in any more—you know, her dignity—she now has regained all of her dignity, and that‘s the most important thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Obviously, a story that has had an impact on the way people will be dealing with death for a long time to come.  Coming up next: She died, but the debate over removing her tube has not.  Will this case lead to any changes in the way doctors look at cases like this?  We‘ll talk to two.  Plus, will it lead to changes in the law with regard to how we live or die?  And coming up, the autopsy.  Could it change any minds?  Michael Schiavo says it will prove his wife did not suffer.  That‘s up next.  And we are keeping an eye on Rome, where the pope is in frail health.  We‘ll have the latest coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

ABRAMS:  This is a live picture of the Vatican, where Pope John Paul II is reportedly stabilizing, after reports that his health had deteriorated.  He had a high fever.  Apparently, as you just heard, he‘s responding well to antibiotics.  We‘ll continue to watch the scene from Rome and bring you any news that we get as soon as we get it.

Back to the Terri Schiavo case.  Her body now in the hands of the Pinellas County medical examiner, undergoing an autopsy.  The results may not be available for weeks, but Terri‘s husband, Michael, says he‘ll make them public, hoping they will dispel rumors of physical abuse and show that Terri was in a permanent vegetative state.  Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, continue to believe that Terri could have gotten better.

So will the autopsy really answer all—any of the questions?  Joining me now is the famed forensic pathologist, Dr. Werner Spitz.  All right, so Dr. Spitz, first question.  How long will this process take?  When would you expect that a final report would be issued?

DR. WERNER SPITZ, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST:  Well, I think the autopsy itself will take a number of hours.  It will probably be—there will be X-rays taken of the body.  The body will be examined externally and internally.  The brain will be placed in a solution to harden it.  This process will take a week to two weeks before the brain is actually cut.  The spinal cord will be treated the same way.  And the microscopic examination of the brain will then follow, with sections taken from all the areas that are pertinent, including the spinal cord.  I think this process will take several weeks.

ABRAMS:  So...

SPITZ:  And then a report will be issued.

ABRAMS:  All right.  So we‘re—so you get a report.  And right now, we have doctors who‘ve been looking at everything from CAT scans—if we can put up the CAT scan that we have—and you know, it‘s pretty clear from that CAT scan there‘s a difference in Terri Schiavo‘s brain and that of a normal brain.  And yet the bottom line is, there‘s still enormous debate over what the diagnosis should be.  I mean, it is not a real debate in the medical community, but there are a few outlying people who insist that Terri Schiavo‘s not in a persistent vegetative state.

So after this autopsy, are there going to be answers more definitive than we have now, to the point where people won‘t be able to say, Well, it‘s my interpretation of this or my interpretation of that?

SPITZ:  There will always be this thing of, My interpretation is different.  But if you look at the CAT scan, as I saw just a little while ago on the television, if you consider the CAT scan in the light of the clinical appearance, and then you put the pathological findings together with that, I think it will be possible to answer a lot of questions—not all questions.  There will always be—there will always be people who will be doubtful of this or that.  But essentially, I think it should—this conglomerate of findings should put this case to rest.

ABRAMS:  Is there any way that—is there ever a time when you see a CAT scan that is that dramatic—I mean...

SPITZ:  Yes.

ABRAMS:  This CAT scan is quite dramatic.

SPITZ:  Yes.

ABRAMS:  Have you ever been involved in a case where you‘ve seen a CAT scan that dramatic, and yet you go in and you do the autopsy, and you say, Oh, my, we had it all wrong?

SPITZ:  No, no, no, no, no.  The CAT scan is a photograph of what the brain looks like, and the pathology is going to confirm that.  And more photographs will be taken of the actual brain.  And what the CAT scan shows as shadows, the new photographs will document in color, or in black and white, but confirm the CAT scan in no uncertain terms.

ABRAMS:  This business about abuse, all right—you know, I don‘t know.  You know, some people are claiming that Michael Schiavo abused Terri.  There doesn‘t seem to be any real good evidence of that, and Michael Schiavo denies it.  But is this really going to be able to answer that question one way or the other?  I mean, it seems to me if they say, Oh, there appears to be a bruise on her leg, it could have happened when they were trying rehabilitation in 1990.

SPITZ:  No, the bruises are all gone.  There are no bruises that would prevail from 1990.  If there were...

ABRAMS:  A fractures, let‘s say.

SPITZ:  Fractures.

ABRAMS:  Yes.

SPITZ:  Fractures that healed will be identifiable by X-rays that will be taken at the autopsy.  But presumably, there have been X-rays taken before, during those 15 years.  And if they have been taken, those X-rays will show that, too.  X-rays of the skull have been taken because that is how the CAT scans were obtained.

ABRAMS:  So Dr. Spitz, it sounds to me like you‘re saying that the autopsy, you know, is going to be sort of the final chapter here.  But it doesn‘t sound to me like you‘re saying that we‘re going to get any sort of ground-breaking news out of it.

SPITZ:  No, I don‘t think you will get breaking news, as you call it.  I think that the autopsy will confirm that which the last 15 years have already documented.  And I think the brain should be abundantly photographed.  Slides, microscopic slides, will be available for other neuropathologists to look at, should they want to.  Although I will tell you this, that the CAT scan, to me, was very, very impressive.

ABRAMS:  Yes.  Yes.

SPITZ:  This is a very severely shrunken brain.

ABRAMS:  Yes, I know.  I think that‘s what I think the vast, vast majority of the medical community says.  Dr. Werner Spitz, thanks a lot for your time.

SPITZ:  You‘re very welcome.

ABRAMS:  We appreciate it.

SPITZ:  You‘re welcome.

ABRAMS:  Coming up: The state of Florida, the U.S. Congress both passed laws specifically related to this case.  So now we ask, will this case lead to other long-term changes in the law?  And we continue to watch the Vatican for any news on the pope‘s health.  Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC HOST:  This is a special live edition of the program.  We are at 12:30 Eastern Time.  This is a live picture of the Vatican, where a Vatican spokesman has just said that Pope John Paul‘s condition is quote “very serious.”  We don‘t know exactly what that means, because it comes really within an hour or so from Vatican radio saying his condition was stabilizing after antibiotic treatment for a very high fever.  A hundred and four fever, in connection with a urinary tract infection.

So we are trying to figure out exactly what the situation is, and as soon as we get any more news we will bring it to you immediately.

All right.  Now back to the Terri Schiavo case.  For the last two weeks, Terri Schiavo‘s life, after a feeding tube was removed we heard from doctor after doctor saying she was not in any pain and couldn‘t feel hunger.  A handful of others disagreed.  So the question is, will this case lead to any reflection and changes in the medical community?

Joining me now, two physicians with opposing views, Dr. Beatrice Engstrand is a neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at New York Medical College, she believes Terri‘s condition could have improved, she is the author of “The Gift of Healing, “a Luxury of Hope.

Also, Dr. Arthur St. Andre, director of surgical critical care at Washington Hospital Center.  He, like much of the medical community, believes Terri was never going to improve and was in a persistent vegetative state.

Dr. Engstrand, let‘s not get back into the same stuff we talked about a lot of times, which is the medical debate.  I want to talk about the impact.  Do you think that this case is going to lead to a debate, soul searching, changes in the medical community as to how they deal with this kind of issue?

DR. BEATRICE ENGSTRAND, NY MEDICAL COLLEGE:  Well I think it might impact physicians when they take initial histories of people and families and they might educate their families about the importance of health care proxies.  So I think something good will come out of this.  I think there will be more of an effort to have things written down as part of a normal history taking of normal physicians around the country.

ABRAMS:  Dr. St. Andre, will there be any kind of—Are there going to be conventions and debates and discussions about this?  Sure, everyone will say, OK, more people know about living wills.  But is this going to lead to a major uproar or debate in the medical community?

DR. ARTHUR ST. ANDRE, WASHINGTON HOSPITAL CENTER:  Well, actually, Dan, there has been very much interest in end-of-life decisions for many years now in the medical profession.  And Terri‘s case, emphasizes our core responsibilities.  First to fully explain the prognosis, the outlook for recovery and for a quality of life, to help all family members to understand that prognosis.

And then when the family says to us, well, what do we do now to help them to understand the options that are available and to strongly emphasize that the decision should be based upon what the patient would want.  These messages may have to be repeated a number of times to help all of the family members understand.  Most all of the time these decisions to withhold or withdraw support are very, very common.  And most of the time, with the medical explanation, the advice and support of the medical profession, we can come to a decision, which the patient would want.  And that will be emphasized.

ABRAMS:  But is there anything about this case, specifically about the way this case was handled, that in your view is going to lead to debate, discussion, changes in the medical community?

ST. ANDRE:  I think the intense interest in this case will emphasize to all of us in the medical profession that we have a strong obligation to assure ourselves that the message has gotten out, especially in the situation of primary care providers and those who are dealing with patients while they are still competent, to be sure they understand they have the option of a living will, to encourage them to have durable power of attorney for health care.

ABRAMS:  I guess, Dr. Engstrand, what I‘m thinking is that you have a different view than Dr. St. Andre and I think that even you would concede your view has been in the minority on the issue of Terri feeling pain, etc.  Do you think that belief—your belief for example and the belief of a handful of others who agree with you, will lead there to be—as I keep asking, this sort of debate within the medical community about the way this case was handled?  Because I start to think that there won‘t be.  I think the bottom line is so many doctors seem to be on the other side that they won‘t feel the need for it.

ENGSTRAND:  Well, I think there will be more of an emphasis on functional imaging.  Not only functional MRI, PET scans and photon imaging.  I think as science advances it will have more to offer people in vegetative states and minimal awareness.  Even, I found out today a fruit fly has a brain.  I was shocked.  So there‘s so much we have to learn about the brain that we don‘t know yet, in our infancy, really.  So I think in the future we will have a lot more to offer people like Terri and her family and other people.

ABRAMS:  I have got to cut this conversation short, I apologize to both of you.  Because we just want to continue following the story about the pope.  Dr. St. Andre and Dr. Engstrand, thank you both, by the way for all of your help throughout this story.  And you know it‘s good to see that it seems you both agree at this point as to where we go from here.  So thank you both very much.

ST. ANDRE:  You‘re welcome.

ENGSTRAND:  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  All right.  The State of Florida and the U.S. Congress have both passed laws in the fight over Terri Schiavo.  The question we are going to ask later is whether it is going to lead to more changes in the law about how and when people die.

Plus on the night of the first memorial for Terri Schiavo, we will look at religion in this case, will religious leaders do anything differently now?

And we are continuing to keep our eye on the Vatican.  We are getting really what sounds like almost conflicting reports about the condition of the pope.  We have received information from last night, Italian time, that the pope had a very high fever, 104 in connection with a urinary tract infection.  We were told he was responding well to antibiotics.  Now a spokesman is describing his condition as very serious.  It could be that those two things mean the same thing, which is that it‘s very serious, and that he is stabilized.  But we want to find out exactly what is going on.  We are hoping for more information.  We‘ll bring it to you as soon as we get it so please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  We‘ve got breaking news to report to you with regard to the health of the pope.  Steven Weeke joins us from outside the Vatican.  Steven, what do you know?

STEVEN WEEKE, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Dan, what we have word from spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, and he‘s the chief spokesman for the Vatican.  He spoke to the media a little while ago and said that the pope‘s condition is very serious.  For him to say that, things must be quite preoccupying.  What we understand is that he had some sort of cardiovascular collapse a few hours ago.  He went into shock and then was later then after that stabilized.

We have had conflicting reports, or somewhat differential reports about his stabilizing and responding positively to antibiotic therapy, which he was given for a high fever, which apparently came from a urinary tract infection.  This was late yesterday afternoon.  There was a hubbub of activity and concern.  The pope suffered this grave downturn.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls went on to say he did receive Last Rites, the Anointing of the Sick, the same sacrament for someone who is gravely ill, not necessarily about to die.  But it‘s also the same Sacrament of Extreme Unction.  It was apparently the pope‘s choice not to return to the hospital to face this crisis.  He wanted to go through it in the Vatican.  Later in the evening we heard he had been put on antibiotics, a very strong dosage to deal with the infection and then this morning we have this news, which is more grave when the spokesman for the Holy See says that the Holy Father is very serious, that‘s a real worry.

ABRAMS:  Well, Steve, let me ask you this, all right.  So I‘ve got two statements in my hand, one report from the Reuters and one from the Associated Press.  It seems they are consistent in the fact the pope had, as you pointed out, had a cardiovascular collapse, suggesting a serious heart problem.  But both the Associated Press and Reuters saying that the report is either that he is conscious, lucid and tranquil, that‘s from Reuters and A.P. describes it as now stable.  Does that say to us that things were very, very grave and now they seem to be a little bit better?

WEEKE:  That‘s what those facts would indicate.  However, knowing the way the Vatican has always handled papal health, and especially John Paul‘s health throughout the decline in the past 10 years beginning with the onset of Parkinson‘s disease, they have always traditionally tried to minimize and emphasize the positive throughout, you know, every bulletin, every time they had to talk about his health, they have avoided dramatizing the situation.  So in terms of the way the Vatican spokesman normally handles this, the kind of language he is using this morning is dramatic, it is stronger than we would normally expect.  And that‘s something that worry about, Dan.

ABRAMS:  Let‘s talk about what used to be called Last Rites.  I don‘t think it is really called that anymore.  But the pope has had that before, correct?  In 1981 when he was shot ...

WEEKE:  Correct.

ABRAMS:  ... that was administered to him, as well, right?

WEEKE:  That‘s right.  He was shot May 13, 1981 right here in St. Peter‘s Square in the jeep by a Turkish gunman.  At that point his life was in danger and on the way to the hospital his personal secretary, Father Stanslau Dziwisz, who is now an archbishop but still the pope‘s personal secretary, administered Last Rites to him, then he went into surgery.  And after he was administered Last Rites he lost consciousness, the pope, at that time.

That was actually the beginning of the downfall of the health of what was a very strong and vigorous athlete, dubbed “G-d‘s Athlete” at the time, and an avid skier, hiker, and a strong 58-year-old man when he was elected, and 61-year-old when he was shot.  So yes.  He has had that before, and it is also the Anointing of the Sick.  There are oils that are placed on someone‘s forehead and it includes the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confession of sins, the absolution from the person who is administering them to the recipient.

ABRAMS:  But let‘s be clear, though.  It does not mean the person is minutes or hours from death.

WEEKE:  Correct.  It does not mean that.  It‘s a sacrament that‘s also given to people who have a serious illness, you know, people who suffer from cancer or something, something that you know, could be terminal or grave.  But it does not necessarily mean that you‘re in imminent danger of dying, Dan.

WEEKE:  And one more question about the type of information that we get from the Vatican.  You seem to be reading very much into the way they are describing these things.  There have been a number of occasions in the past where you know, the information has come out, and then later we‘ve learned it was actually far more serious than they indicated.

WEEKE:  Yes.  And especially their use of euphemisms.  I mean, for example, when he first had his tracheotomy, you know, they said the pope is going through exercises in phonation.  What that was was a big word for the fact that he had to relearn how to speak because you know, he no longer was able to take air through the throat and through the vocal chords, creating speech as we normally do it.

So he had to relearn how to talk.  And we had saw direct examples of what a problem that is, when he appeared at the window and tried to speak, and al that came out was a groaning croak.  So that‘s the kind of language that the Vatican uses.  And it has always been minimalistic, if we can call it that.  So when we hear strong adjectives come from the Vatican press office, that kind of makes you, you know, put your head up.

ABRAMS:  Well, it seems to be difficult to characterize a cardiovascular collapse as anything but serious.  Steven Weeke, we‘re going to ask you to stand by.  Again the latest news we are getting is that the pope has had cardiovascular collapse, that the Vatican is characterizing it as “very serious.”  Others are using the term “grave.”  But they are also saying that he is conscious, lucid and tranquil.  The Associated Press reporting he is now stable.  And earlier we had heard that he was responding to antibiotics.  But this certainly sounds more serious than anything that antibiotics could cure.

So we are waiting to get more information on that.  We will take a break, be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHERYL CASONE, MSNBC ANCHOR:  MSNBC keeps you up to the minute every 15 minutes.  I‘m Cheryl Casone.

As Dan Abrams has been discussing, the Vatican now says the pope‘s condition is very serious.  A spokesman says the pontiff had suffered shock and cardiovascular collapse, suggesting serious heart trouble.  But he is now stable.  A spokesman said he decided himself not to go to the hospital for treatment.  The spokesman said the pope had received cardio-respiratory assistance on Thursday, and on Friday morning was still conscious, lucid and tranquil.

And in other headlines, President Bush says he has started implementing fixes to America‘s intelligence gathering.  He spoke after the release of a presidential commission report that blasted prewar intelligence on Iraq, and concluded many problems remain.  The report recommends dozens of organizational changes.  I‘m Cheryl Casone.  Now back to a special edition of THE ABRAMS REPORT.

ABRAMS:  You are looking at a live picture of the Vatican where Pope John Paul II is suffering a health crisis.  Hours ago, the 84-year-old pontiff developed what initially was referred to as a high fever, what we are now learning is also quote, “cardiovascular collapse.”  All the latest information we are getting suggests that the pope has stabilized.  He is quote “conscious, lucid and tranquil,” according to a statement from the Vatican.

We are talking again with Steven Weeke, who is our producer there covering the Vatican for almost 10 years.  All right.  Steven, let‘s talk about the process.  I mean, this is something that the Vatican prepares for, and they have a system in place so that if and when the pope dies, there is effectively an interim team there that takes over until the next pope is elected, right?

WEEKE:  That‘s right.  However, the emphasis is on the word “interim” because the cardinals are not allowed to make any of the decisions that are made by a pope.  In a sense, the Catholic Church and the Vatican are one of the last true autocracies in terms of organizational structure.  All the real power is in the hands of the papacy.  It is only the pope who can make major policy decisions, can appoint bishops, accept resignations and make important diplomatic moves.  So basically once there is what they call the vacancy of the Holy See, the holy see being the throne, the holy throne, when that is vacant, it is simply an interim government which isn‘t really a government.

It‘s just a caretaker which puts the process through in order to install a new pope after an election.

ABRAMS:  Let‘s talk about the vote.  There is a new system in place.  It used to be you needed 2/3 vote in order to be effectively elected as pope.  But they have now changed it that I think if they pass with 30 votes then a majority vote will suffice?

WEEKE:  No.  It‘s still 2/3 plus one.  And the College of Cardinals has to be 120 voting cardinals.  At the moment, there are 117.  There are more than 180 cardinals total.  But only those who are under the age of 80 are allowed to vote.  However, the rules, as rewritten by John Paul II in 1996, make it such that if they do reach a stalemate in the sense they have several votes and they don‘t have a winner it gets reduced to simply a majority.  But that is after a certain number of ballots.

ABRAMS: I think it‘s—I think what I read before I came on here was if it gets up to 30 ballots, without a 2/3, then the new rule essentially would say the majority.  And the effect of that initially it was harder to get people who were sort of on the extremes elected.  But now, with this new rule it may lead to more - let‘s say traditionalists becoming elected pope.  Is that fair to say?

WEEKE:  It could be that way.  But we also have a very different college of cardinals now than we ever had in the past.  John Paul revolutionized a lot of things throughout his papacy.  And one of them was to broaden the international aspect of the College of Cardinals and add many cardinals.  So at the time that John Paul went into the conclave in 1978, the ...

ABRAMS:  Steven, just let me do this.  I‘m going to ask you to hang on, for one sec.  I‘m going to come back to you in a minute.  I‘ve just got to take a quick break.  We are continuing to watch the pope‘s health.  Come back to Steven Weeke in a moment.  Quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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