The Terri Schiavo Legacy ; Her Death Thursday Ends a Contentious Battle, but Ripple Effects Could Persist in Courts, Congress, and Personal Lives

Article excerpt

The passing of Terri Schiavo ends one of the most protracted and high-profile right-to-die cases in American history. But beyond the personal tragedy it represents, the case also adds fuel to an array of unresolved legal and political issues and sets the stage for contentious national debate for years to come.

Already, the case of the brain-damaged Florida woman - who died Thursday after 15 years in what doctors called a persistent vegetative state and almost 13 days after her feeding tube was removed - has spurred some states to accelerate legislation aimed at preventing the kind of intrafamily conflict that kept Mrs. Schiavo in legal limbo for seven years.

The US Congress is also ready to take a fresh look at end-of- life issues, even after polls showed many Americans opposed the intervention of Congress and President Bush into the Schiavo case last month. Members of Congress from both parties, some spurred by right-to-life sentiments, others by advocates for the disabled, say the question of who makes decisions in disputed right-to-die cases is worth another look on Capitol Hill.

On a personal level, the legal tug-of-war over Schiavo has forced Americans to confront the unthinkable by vividly illustrating the importance of a living will.

Part of the culture war

At heart, the Schiavo case represents the latest skirmish in the nation's culture war, already heated over abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. Social conservatives have long sought to tip the balance on these issues through appointment of conservative judges - and, analysts say, one direct effect of Schiavo could be to inflame passions even more than expected over a US Supreme Court vacancy that could come soon. The high court declined to take up the Schiavo case three times within the past two weeks.

"The most significant aspect of [the Schiavo case] is that it's likely a stage-setter for a huge conflagration over the first Supreme Court nominee," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council and former Christian Coalition official.

But the most surprising aspect of the case, Mr. Wittmann adds, is that it brought to light the simmering tensions within the Republican coalition between the limited-government activists and religious conservatives. High-profile economic conservatives such as Grover Norquist and Stephen Moore, who usually support President Bush and the congressional Republican leadership, criticized their unorthodox move to turn what is normally a state issue over to the federal courts in the Schiavo case.

On the day of Schiavo's death, however, Bush remained undeterred. "The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak," he said. "In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in favor of life."

Negative public reaction to Congress's intervention may nevertheless deter similar attempts to federalize a case like this in the future, analysts say.

"A good number of those who cast votes last time are going to be frightened the next time," says Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine Law School who is critical of the federal intervention in the Schiavo case. "The polling data is telling them that most people are not all on one side or at least not on their side. So they will be gun-shy."

Role of guardians at stake

While many Americans are opposed to government intervention in what they view as private medical decisions dealing with end-of- life issues, the Schiavo case has also raised concerns about the power of guardians and judges to end someone's life even when a patient's wishes remain a matter of dispute among family members. …