Family tragedy as a Great Political Issue

Two weeks ago, few outside Florida had heard of Terri Schiavo. As of this writing, her family has run out of court appeals and legislative efforts to reconnect her feeding tube. This is probably not the end of the national horror show over the future of this brain-damaged woman or the Republicans’ use of a private, heartbreaking situation for their own ends. The case has implications for congressional intrusion into the most intimate areas of our lives and the separation between Congress and the courts.

The cynical use of Ms. Schiavo’s case and twisting of the facts has been unspeakable. President Bush’s stated position that “it is wisest to always err on the side of life” apparently did not apply to the law he signed in 1999 as governor of Texas. That legislation allows hospitals to remove life support in hopeless cases, regardless of family preferences. After rushing back to D.C. from Texas for a middle-of-the-night signing of Congress’s bill to bypass the decision of Florida’s courts, he followed up with a daytime photo-op. Tom DeLay, House majority leader, told us, “We should investigate every avenue before we take the life from a human being,” ignoring repeated court findings of validity in Michael Schiavo’s claim that his wife did not want to be trapped on life support. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pressured the state Legislature for new efforts. At the national level, the Justice Department monitored and interfered with the case. There was talk of kidnapping Ms. Schiavo.

Yes, the Terri Schiavo case presented an excellent opportunity for Republicans to grandstand for the religious right, pay back favors, distract us from the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, bury DeLay’s continuing scandals, and hide the bankruptcy of Bush’s attack on Social Security.

Missing from the right’s calculus is the pain they played on and the additional pain they caused. Terri Schiavo has been on life support since a heart attack in 1990. She is in a persistent vegetative state, from all reports a particularly trying situation for loved ones. She wakes up. Her eyes open. She sometimes groans or smiles. How easy it must be to interpret such involuntary behavior as the response you’ve have been waiting for, praying for, for years. How horrible to see it splashed across every newspaper front page and television screen! And it has been not only Terri Schiavo’s family going through this. Families that have had to make difficult, end-of-life decisions have been reliving their pain.

The Christian Coalition has been front and center in the drive to keep Terri Schiavo on life-support, calling in their dues for Bush’s election to a second term. Perhaps even more frightening is the involvement of Randall Terry (founder) and other past members of Operation Rescue, the right-wing group that used intimidation against women seeking abortions. Terry became the spokesman for Ms. Schiavo’s parents, which might help to explain their zeal. Others, including survivalist elements, have been active in protests, such as the one at the Woodside Hospice, where Ms. Schiavo resides. Imagine trying to visit a loved one, being made comfortable as he or she spends a few final days in a serene setting, only to have that serenity blasted apart by what one volunteer called a “macabre sort of circus.” Are these the people we want meddling in our end-of-life decisions?

If you think this congressional usurpation of authority from the judicial system is an isolated incident, think again. There were no provisions that would prevent the congressional legislation from setting a precedent. Congress is now poised to discuss end-of-life legislation, a move consistent with the Bush administration’s attack on Oregon’s assisted suicide law.

Terri Schiavo’s situation is tragic. The Bush administration and Republican manipulation of that tragedy to appease their base and distract the nation from pressing national concerns is beyond the pale. These efforts are beginning to backfire, as some of the most fervent are turning on Gov. Bush and others for pulling back in the face of solid defeat. We have to see through the right’s melodramatic appeals, help others to understand, and throw these bums out at the very first opportunity!