This is a subject that I should not be writing about. The life and death situation of Terri Schiavo and the dispute between her husband and her family are tragic and also personal. It’s no business to you, me, President Bush nor the United States Congress.
But to remain silent against what the Los Angeles Times has correctly called “a constitutional coup d’etat.” is to condone demagoguery, hypocrisy, and the trashing of principle, compassion and constitutional law. There is a legal process for settling life and death family disputes. That process has been utilized with admirable care and respect in the Schiavo case. Ms. Schiavo’s tragedy is now being exploited by right-wing Republicans for partisan gain. Have they no decency? Is there nothing sacred in the Republican Party’s quest for political power?
Theresa Schiavo, according to 18 examining physicians, has been in what the courts call a “persistent vegetative state” since 1990. She never signed a living will but her husband Michael has long claimed that before she lost consciousness she expressed to him a desire not to be kept alive in an unnatural vegetative state. Successive judges have upheld her husband’s assertion as well as the medical diagnoses that she will not recover. So have a majority of Florida state legislators. Florida has a Death with Dignity Act to adjudicate domestic conflicts like the one the Schiavo family has faced. Legal experts say that the Act has done what it is supposed to do, but Governor Jeb Bush, his brother the President, and some right-wing Christian fundamentalists do not like the outcome. Hence their efforts to side-track the law.
Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed Friday under a Florida court order. Though Congress was on a holiday, House Speaker Tom DeLay ordered a special weekend session just for this case. Republican majorities in the House and Senate passed legislation requiring a federal court to review the case. The Republicans hoped that the federal judge would order the tube reinserted. Then they could claim to have saved Schiavo’s life while Democrats, who supported the law, would have allowed her to die.
But U.S. District Court Judge James Whittemore of Tampa, presiding at the hearing, rejected the plea of Schiavo's parents. "This court concludes that Theresa Schiavo's life and liberty interests were adequately protected by the extensive process provided in the state courts, "he wrote in his decision refusing to order Schiavo's feeding tubes reconnected. A full U.S. Court of Appeals, sitting in Atlanta, upheld Whittemore’s decision.
Since 1998, Florida courts have considered a mountain of evidence, listened to hundreds of witnesses and weighed a variety of legal arguments on the Schiavo case. Numerous judges have reached the same conclusion: that Ms. Schiavo expressed a wish that her life not be prolonged through extraordinary means.
Terri Schiavo's parents got an appeal in federal court thanks to extraordinary congressional action; never before has so much government effort been mustered in behalf of one individual. Bush talks about his commitment to the “culture of life.” But this smacks of hypocrisy. Consider the administration’s support of the death penalty and preemptive war. The right wing may stand four-square behind a fetus or a vegetative adult but every living person in between is subject to the merciless and impersonal winner-take-all ideology of the free market.
“Here, it was the perceived political clout of the fundamentalist right that inspired federal intervention. How many Republican lawmakers would give up a holiday in behalf of a secular, progressive, African-American lesbian in a similar vegetative state?
The public is often drawn into stories of human tragedy. We all want to root for miners lost in a mineshaft, little boys fallen down a well. And so we pray, vigil, stay glued to the media for the latest news, even as we ignore the more deadly but impersonal tragedies going on all around us.
But the reaction to the Schiavo story is of a different magnitude. It’s perfectly understandable for people to pray and, in other personal ways, becoming vicariously involved with another person’s misfortune. But here we have government entering the fray, taking sides in a family fight, and manipulating the law for political gain.
With this display, the Republican Party and, more specifically, the Bush administration, no longer have the right to call themselves conservatives. Conservatives believe in small government, privacy, the rule of law, the rights of individuals, and, in the context of our federal system, the primacy of the states. Here the Republicans are intervening in a private matter, ignoring the precedence of law, and using federal courts to overturn state decisions that they are not happy with.
This should surprise no one. Republican “conservatives” pulled the same stunt in the 2000 election. Then, in violation of conservative philosophy, Republicans allowed the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling of the Florida Supreme Court that would have made Al Gore President. The Republicans will go for power regardless of their own philosophic principles. Nothing will stop them unless the American people stand up and say, ”Enough is enough!”
The right wing presents itself as the defender of heterosexual marriage, which they describe as the bulwark of civilization. But here, because they don’t like the words he is saying, they have undermined the legal right of Schiavo’s husband to speak as her legal guardian. That’s hypocritical.
For the sake of power, George W. Bush is even willing to rhetorically transform himself into an FDR-New Dealer -- at least for a moment. At the White House signing of the Schiavo legislation, Bush said, "Government has an obligation to protect the weak, the disabled and the vulnerable." Of course he’s right, but that’s not what he believes. President Bush, committed as he is to a laissez-faire free market ideology, does not believe that government has a positive role to play in society except, of course, when it enhances his power and authority.
As a person battling cancer I feel the tragedy of the Schiavo case. Like most people living with a serious illness, I’ve been forced to confront my own mortality. I’ve made a living will and want to die gracefully, with a minimum of pain. Bottom-line: I wouldn’t want Tom DeLay, George W. Bush or even, say, Pat Leahy (a politician I like and trust) to manipulate my death for their political advantage. The Schiavo case is a disgrace; a blatant effort by right-wing politicians to exploit Theresa Schiavo’s tragedy for their own political power.
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