PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — When the Rev. Ed Martin decided to take to the streets to demonstrate on behalf of saving a brain-damaged Terri Schiavo, he picked up a sign he usually carries when he protests outside abortion clinics.

He said the message — "Life, the first inalienable right" — was just right.

Christian conservatives opposed to abortion have taken a leading role in the Schiavo right-to-die case, saying the moral issues at stake are identical.

"We believe life begins at conception and ends at natural death," said the 59-year-old Martin, a Protestant minister who has found himself demonstrating next to disability-rights activists. "God gives life, and God only can take life."

During the past few years, religious conservatives have injected themselves into the dispute with enthusiasm that intensifies each time a new date for removing Schiavo's feeding tube nears. They are backing Schiavo's parents, who are fighting to keep her alive.

Religious activists show up at court hearings and demonstrate outside the Pinellas Park hospice where Schiavo lies. Religious organizations such as the Catholic Medical Association regularly speak out for her and deluge Gov. Jeb Bush and lawmakers with thousands of e-mails and phone calls.

Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, coordinates many of the protests and has become a spokesman for Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, who say they are grateful.


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The Vatican also has weighed in, saying last week that Schiavo should be kept alive.

The family's attorneys — who are being paid by the anti-abortion group Life Legal Defense Foundation — filed another flurry of legal motions this week trying to again block the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, now set for March 18.

"It's two sides of the same coin — the fundamental right to life, which has already been taken away from unborn children by a judicial process, and now, right-to-life of a handicapped adult is facing the same threat," said the Rev. Thomas Euteneuer, a Roman Catholic priest who heads the Virginia-based anti-abortion group Human Life International and demonstrated in front of the hospice last week.

The Schindlers have been fighting their son-in-law in court for almost seven years over their daughter. Michael Schiavo wants to pull the tube and let his 41-year-old wife die, saying she told him she would never want to be kept alive artificially. Her parents dispute that and say she could improve with therapy.

Schiavo has been in what the court has ruled is a persistent vegetative state since her heart stopped temporarily in 1990 because of what doctors believe was a chemical imbalance brought on by an eating disorder. She can breathe on her own but gets food and water through a tube in her abdomen.

Her parents vehemently dispute that she is without consciousness, as some doctors have testified. Her eyes are open, she makes sounds, and her family believes she communicates with them.

Jana Carpenter, a nurse and a Catholic who belongs to a local anti-abortion group, has become a familiar sight at Schiavo court hearings and demonstrations since 2000.

"If you believe in God, you don't believe in knocking off people like Terri Schiavo," she said.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, laments the influence that religious groups have wielded.

After strong lobbying from religious groups in 2003, the governor pushed a law through the Legislature authorizing him to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube, which had been removed on orders from a judge. The law was later ruled unconstitutional.

"The concern I have is on their influence in shaping public policy," Simon said. "We've already seen that in the influence they have on the governor."

For Euteneuer and others, Schiavo has become a powerful figure.

"With the unborn children, you can't see the victim," the priest said. "Euthanasia now has a face. We're fighting for the same right to life for Terri as for the unborn."