From a bedside in a Florida hospice to the halls of the US
Congress, the fast-moving fight to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo
is eclipsing war, budgets, and the looming battle over Social
Security as a cause celebre in Washington.
Behind the move by many Republicans on Capitol Hill is a desire
to advance a "culture of life" agenda that they think will be
important in the 2006 elections and beyond. At the same time, many
conservative groups see the fight to save Mrs. Schiavo as an
extension of the war over judicial nominations and "activist"
But the decision of congressional leaders to intervene in the
case, which played out dramatically over Palm Sunday weekend,
reflects a highly charged mix of religion and politics that critics
say could have broad and unintended consequences.
"Congress's overreaching flies in the face of our entire system
of checks and balances, trashes the partial sovereignty of the
states, and flouts the protections our laws afford state
adjudication from drive-by attacks by those disaffected with the
results," says Laurence Tribe, a Harvard University law professor.
The speed and intensity of the issue surprised many on Capitol
Hill. Most members had already left Washington for a two-week recess
and long-planned travel overseas when doctors removed the feeding
tube from a brain-damaged woman in Florida on Friday.
In an unusual move, the Senate was called back for an
extraordinary session on Saturday evening, opening the door for
House and Senate votes expected during early Monday morning hours.
The bipartisan compromise worked out between House and Senate
leaders on Saturday asks a federal court in Florida to consider the
parents' claim to restore the feeding tube. President Bush said he
would return to the capital to sign the bill.
Mrs. Schiavo has been diagnosed by doctors as "in a persistent
vegetative state" for the past 15 years. Her husband, Michael
Schiavo, says that his wife would not want to have her life extended
- a view her parents reject. She left no written directive.
For many conservative activists, the Schiavo case is a proxy for
expanding a pro-life agenda on everything from abortion rights to
judicial nominations. "It's a real showdown with the courts," says
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who has been
in continuous contact with congressional leaders and "our grass-
roots across the country" on the case. "This case is important to
family members of Terri Schiavo and to our country as a whole - that
we not move down this path where people are forced to die," he says.
Last week, as both houses of Congress were rushing to pass
resolutions on the president's FY2006 budget, GOP leaders began
discussing the case. Physician lawmakers in both the House and
Senate disputed the attending physicians' claims that Mrs. Schiavo
was in a "persistent vegetative state. …