Boiled down to its essence, the ongoing legal dispute over a
severely brain-damaged Florida woman might well have been filed in
court under the label Theresa Marie Schiavo v. Theresa Marie
Both sides in the life-or-death drama unfolding in a Pinellas
Park, Fla., hospice and federal courtrooms are claiming to be acting
in what they believe to be Terri Schiavo's best interests.
Yet only one of those parties can be right. The other, while
acting with the best intentions, is misrepresenting Ms. Schiavo.
It is this aspect of attempting to know the unknowable - what
Schiavo herself would want in this instance - that has perplexed
much of the nation in water-cooler debates and kitchen-table
The debate is more than simply right-to-life versus right-to-
die. Legal analysts say Schiavo's struggle is playing out along the
same cultural and ideological fault lines that split the nation over
abortion, stem-cell research, and evolution.
To some it comes down to a belief in miracles and the miracle of
life. To others it is the imagined horror of life in a body that
will not respond to thought.
"This case is a piece of the continuing conflict between science
and faith," says Alan Meisel, director of the Center for Bioethics
and Health Law at the University of Pittsburgh.
On the positive side, the case has helped educate Americans about
the importance of living wills. But rather than uniting the nation,
the Schiavo case has increasingly divided and polarized the country,
By intervening this week on behalf of Schiavo's parents, Mary and
Robert Schindler, Congress has given new momentum to a movement of
lawyers who are seeking to litigate their right-to-life perspective
in right-to-die cases. One key obstacle for these lawyers has been
that they often lack the necessary legal standing to insert
themselves into such cases.
That is the importance of Congress's Schiavo law, and potentially
its constitutional Achilles' heel, legal analysts say. It granted
standing to Schiavo's parents, created federal court jurisdiction in
a state court matter, and ordered the federal courts to consider the
During many years of litigation in the Florida courts, state
judges have ruled that Mrs. Schiavo's husband, Michael, should serve
as her guardian. In addition, the Florida courts have reached a
legal judgment that Schiavo would prefer to end her life rather than
continue living in what the courts say is a persistent vegetative
state. Mrs. Schiavo's parents disagree with these findings. But they
have been unable to convince any Florida judges to overturn them.
Some legal analysts say regardless of how the federal courts
respond, the congressional action is dangerous because it undermines
the finality of state court decisions and suggests that politicians
can insert themselves into an individual's private medical affairs
in ways that may clash with the views of that individual or other
family members. …