Schiavo Drama Feeds Political Frenzy

The Christian Century, April 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Schiavo Drama Feeds Political Frenzy


As Terri Schiavo drew her final breaths, dozens of praying protesters--and even greater numbers of journalists--massed daily outside her hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida. The crowd changed mostly whenever religious activists--ranging from Randall Terry to Jesse Jackson--showed up to comfort those who grasped at any straw of hope.

The family saga of a severely brain-damaged woman, whose husband and parents differed over whether a feeding tube should be removed or kept in place after 15 years, escalated into a drama with political, ethical and culture-war dimensions.

Differences on how to define the end of life will continue to be aired in legislative hails and religious forums, but the frenzy surrounding Terri Schiavo, 41, ended March 31 with her death 13 days after her feeding tube had been removed.

Thwarted at the state court levels, Schiavo's parents appealed to national political leaders for relief, getting senators and House members back to Washington to pass a bill, signed by President Bush, asking for remedies in federal courts. In quick order, federal courts rejected the cry to "save Terri," and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case.

Bush had said the government "should have a presumption in favor of life" in cases where there are disputes over the removal of life-sustaining means. And House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas called removing Schiavo's feeding tube--which would dehydrate and starve her--"an act of barbarism" and "murder."

But critics saw the political maneuvers as hypocritical, and public opinion polls tended to show that most Americans wanted the end-of-life decisions left to family members and their physicians.

Several media outlets reported on a law that Bush signed in 1999 while he was governor of Texas. It allows physicians to overrule family members' wishes in cases in which continuing life-support is deemed "futile" and the patient has no chance of recovering. On March 15, as a result of the law, six-month-old Sun Hudson died in his mother's arms at a Houston hospital.

Also, the Los Angeles Times reported March 27 that DeLay agreed in 1988 with a family decision to decline "extraordinary" measures to keep alive his father, who sustained severe brain damage in a freak accident. A spokesman for DeLay said the ethics of the two situations are quite different. Sun Hudson was removed from a respirator. The DeLay family chose not to have Charles DeLay attached to a dialysis machine after his kidneys failed.

Repeatedly, Florida courts and state-appointed medical experts found that Terri Schiavo was essentially brain-dead or in a "persistent vegetative state" from which she would not recover and that, though she left no written directive or "living will," previous statements she had made to her husband and other family members and friends indicated she would not want to be kept alive in such a condition.

Perhaps the first ethical question is this: Is there a moral distinction between removing a feeding tube and removing other means of life support? …

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