The Schiavo Legal Battle II

March 24, 2005

Last blog I discussed the role of the primary protagonists in the Terri Schiavo case, the family members. Every week all over the US families make the decision to end the life of a loved one whose quality of life or hope for recovery is so small as to be nonexistent. For the most part these decisions are personal and private. The Schiavo court case turned a family disagreement into an impersonal and public debate. Today I want to talk about the outside supporters on both sides. .
Supporters of the Schindlers. A variety of legal, religious and pro-life groups have rallied to the side of the Schindlers in this case. While there are a variety of motivations, the most common one appears to be based on the notion that all life is sacred and that “we should err on the side of life.” But what does this mean? Few people in this camp argue that all life is worth prolonging. The difficulty is finding the criteria and the combination of factors that allow people to make such decisions in everyday life. This is why the decision is left to individual families and only reaches the courts when family members cannot agree. I assume that these supporters of the Schindlers’ position have entered the fray primarily because Terri can no longer speak for herself. But it is this same “culture of life” crowd that on the one hand fights “die with dignity” laws that might ease suffering and hasten death, and on the other hand complain that patients like Terri Schiavo are being “starved to death.” I have news for you. Thousands of people are “starved to death” every month in this country – because that’s what YOUR position requires.

Supporters of Michael Schiavo. Just as the Schindlers’ are receiving support from outside groups, so is Michael Schiavo. For some, this is an issue of being allowed to die with dignity and for others they see it as an extension of the pro-life/pro-choice abortion debate. These folks can no more be sure of the facts from their casual reading of news reports than can the Schindlers’ supporters. But that doesn’t stop them from weighing in with certainty and fervor. It’s hard to see Michael Schiavo as a hero in this drama, but that’s exactly what many see – a man who could have walked away with the Schindlers’ offer of a million dollars to sign Terri over to them, but who chose to see this through because that’s what Terri wanted. These folks, as with the outside supporters on the other side, for the most part hold sincere beliefs so have trouble seeing the extent to which they are exploiting Terri Schiavo.

Republicans in Congress. No so the Florida legislature and the Republicans in Congress. As politicians, they are in a unique position to understand exploitation. It’s pretty clear that while some Republicans in Congress saw this as a vote of conscience, Senate Majority leader Bill Frist and House Majority Leader Tom Delay saw this as a tough vote for Democrats and a no-lose situation for Republicans. Frist, a medical doctor and heart surgeon – but not a neurologist – surprised politicians and medical professionals alike when he weighed in with a medical opinion:

“I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office… she certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli.”

Yes, and the sun certainly seems to revolve around the earth. The irresponsibility of Frist’s statement is breathtaking – contradicting doctors who have performed extensive in-person medical evaluations without any more than an ocular analysis (eyeballing the data) of a video edited and supplied by the Schindler family. Frist’s actions seem odd, until one remembers that Bill Frist is a moderate-right Republican with presidential ambitions, who therefore needs the support of the religious right to have a hope of getting the Republican nomination in 2008. I lost a lot of respect for Bill Frist this week. Tom Delay is a different case. I have little respect for 20%ers (on the right or the left) and Delay is a 1%er. He’s the man who whipped the vote during the partisan Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton and the man who got the House ethics rules changed and the Ethics Committee stacked with supporters earlier this year in anticipation of trouble for himself. He’s a bully who has overplayed his hand. As happened with Newt Gingrich, the politics of personal self-destruction will likely take care of Mr. Delay.

Democrats in Congress. Democrats in Congress were too timid to take on the “life” issue during the Republican diversion last week, so they focused, with some delight, on the states’ rights issue. They took delight because ever since the civil rights era, Republicans have staked out the position that they are the defenders of states’ rights while Democrats want to improperly take away rights or force states’ into action. Of course, both political parties act in political ways and support the court decisions that go their way. But in this case, Democrats were right and the Republicans made a political miscalculation. Republicans believed that even if nothing came of their forced insertion of the federal courts in the Schiavo case, they would still win the political battle. Wrong. Polls are already showing that the country is against last week’s Congressional action by an overwhelming margin.

But only 261 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives voted on this issue. Republicans voted 156-5 for the bill (71 did not vote) and Democrats voted 47-53 against, with 102 not voting. So Republicans stuck their collective heads up, most Democrats ducked, and the Republicans took a hit. There’s not a lot for Democrats to be proud of here.

President Bush. The Bush White House not only supported and helped write the Schiavo bill, the President spoke of the issue in his fake townhall meetings – his 60 Social Security dog and pony shows in 60 days initiative. And rather than have the bill flown to him in Texas, he took the highly visible step of cutting his vacation short and flew back to Washington to sign the bill. As with the Republicans, I have to assume that this seemed like good politics at the time.

This may not hurt Mr. Bush, or even the Republicans in a direct way. But the continued Republican attacks on the judiciary, when tied to the Schiavo case, may have repercussions as the Senate approaches a showdown on judges. Stay tuned.