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
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. …