Tragedy on the National Stage: Conservative Intervention into the Terri Schiavo Case Was a Disservice to Everybody

Article excerpt

YOU COULD SAY THAT FOR A moment, the government of the United States stood still. In March 2005, congressional leaders pushed through a bill that was quite unprecedented in American history. They called it "Terri's Law"--and in a moment of high drama and international media attention, the president flew to Washington from his vacation in Texas just to sign it. The bill authorized the federal courts to intervene in the case of a Florida woman, Terri Schiavo. As doctors testified and the state courts ruled, Schiavo had been in a persistent vegetative state and beyond medical help for 15 years. At issue was the court-ordered removal of the feeding tube that was keeping her alive against her expressed wishes. Her case had been the subject of many rounds of litigation, much of it handled by religious-right legal groups. Political and media hijinks had marked the case for many years. At one point, the Florida legislature had authorized the governor to have the state police seize Schiavo to keep feeding her, and the governor had done so. As the end neared, Governor Jeb Bush almost did so again, but he stood down when the presiding judge made clear such action would cause a showdown between the branches of government. Ultimately, federal courts including the Supreme Court declined to intervene, and, Congressional action notwithstanding, Schiavo was allowed to die a dignified death on March 31, 2005.

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The end-of-life drama of Terri Schiavo was an international media sensation, a tabloid feeding frenzy with unintended consequences for Republican political leaders. They thought their extraordinary efforts to prolong the life of one helpless woman, said to be a victim of dark deeds and judicial indifference, would have wide public appeal. Instead, the case served as a wake-up call to many Americans regarding the threat to their privacy by the religious right and the politicians who pander to it.

Senate majority leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who is also a heart surgeon, went so far as to cast doubt on the medical judgment of the many physicians who had examined Schiavo. In a speech on the Senate floor, Frist declared, "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." Frist was widely criticized for grandstanding, especially because he had not personally examined Schiavo and neurology was not his specialty. Senator Mel Martinez, R-Fla., accidentally gave a Democratic senator a talking-points memo drawn up by Martinez's staff. The memo made clear Martinez's intention to exploit the Schiavo affair for political advantage, stating, among other things, "This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue."

But neither the courts of law nor the court of public opinion subscribed to theories of misdiagnosis or the like. Former senator and U.N. ambassador John Danforth, R-Mo., was so shocked at the extent to which sectarian doctrines were driving politics and policy in his own party that he wrote a book about it. The retired statesman and Episcopal priest spoke for most Americans when he wrote that the Schiavo episode constituted "Big Brotherism in the extreme, an exercise of the raw and awesome power of the federal government." This "was a threat to all the families that had seen their loved ones suffer through terminal illness," and people were "terrified that their own lives might someday be artificially extended in nightmarish circumstances," Danforth wrote. "It was a threat to some of our most heartfelt values."

Many wonder in retrospect how the tragic story of one woman and her family facing contentious, but not especially unusual, end-of-life issues became the most publicized end-of-life spectacle, and one of the tawdriest tabloid political dramas, in recent American history. As it happens, three of those most responsible were among the most militant and theatrical antiabortion activists in the world. …