Why Schiavo Is a Cause Celebre ; Leaders of Congress Intervened over the Weekend in a Highly Charged Case

By Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

Why Schiavo Is a Cause Celebre ; Leaders of Congress Intervened over the Weekend in a Highly Charged Case


Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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" judges.

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. …

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