Terri's Legacy: The Fight over Terri Schiavo Showed Just How Vulnerable All Couples Are to outside Interference in Their Private Lives-Especially Gay and Lesbian Couples

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Karen Thompson couldn't help but feel deep sympathy as she watched Michael Schiavo's personal struggle over the life and death of his wife become the target of religions activists and conservative politicians. "It brought back a lot of old feelings," she says, noting her battle to care for her gravely ill partner, Sharon Kowalski. "I know what it's like to live your life in limbo day after day. I really felt for this guy, that he stuck it out this long. It's the same situation I was in, and it's a no-win situation."

Michael Schiavo's 41-year-old wife, Terri, died on March 31 after he won a seven-year battle with her parents to remove the feeding tube that had kept her alive since a heart attack left her in a persistent vegetative state 15 years ago. Because there was no living will or other legal document to prove what he said was his wife's expressed wish--not to be kept alive by a machine--it not only allowed her parents to intervene, it invited Congress and the president to pass a bill on March 21 allowing Terri Schiavo's parents to take their case to the federal courts.

The unprecedented action left many gays and lesbians feeling uneasy. It showed just how far Congress and the president are willing to go to advance an agenda reflecting a conservative conception of morality. And it was the latest chapter in a national trend of lawmaking based on religious ideologies that has blossomed in the wake of the presidential election last year. Across the country, state and national lawmakers are introducing legislation that affects the private lives of citizens--in many cases gays and lesbians. Adoption and marriage rights for gays have become targets of the same kind of religious-based lawmaking that has long been applied to abortion, drug use, and, in the case of Schiavo, the right to die. "It does not bode well for where they might next insert themselves," says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented Thompson in her fight. "Certainly this Congress would not support decision-making authority for a lesbian or gay partner."

Thompson, 57, knows all about a lack of support: After Kowalski was struck by a drunk driver in 1983 and fell into a coma, Thompson was kept out of the hospital room. Because there was no legal document specifying Kowalski's wishes, her father, who did not approve of the women's relationship, secured legal guardianship and denied Thompson visitation.

Soon antigay activists and politicians were involved, and the ensuing legal battle became what has since been described as a high-water mark for gay and lesbian inequality. Kowalski came out of her coma several months later, but it took eight years and numerous unfavorable court rulings before Thompson was finally allowed to bring her partner home to Clearwater, Minn., where she continues to recover. "Our relationships aren't validated, which makes us more vulnerable," Thompson says. "But at the same time, here's this case that shows even when you are married you need to have the right papers."

Indeed, the Schiavo case was a wake-up call. Congress routinely passes "private bills" like the one affecting Terri Schiavo, says gay U.S. representative Barney Frank, who spoke out against the bill on the House floor. "But until now, they have all had to do with benefits, such as tax breaks for corporations or immigrant status," he says. "For Congress to pass a law intervening in a particular [right-to-die] case is unprecedented." Frank argued that the bill was unconstitutional because it interfered with the judiciary. But no judge issued a ruling in favor of Schiavo's parents, so the law's constitutionality wasn't resolved.

"It's what I like to call the invasion of the busybodies," says Pat Logue, senior counsel for Lambda Legal and a lead attorney on the team that won the landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision striking down sodomy laws. …


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