The Schiavo Circus

The Brothers Bush turn flips—no net!—for right-to-lifers

Have a family dilemma? No worries. The Bush brothers are on the way! As the parents of Terri Schiavo will tell you, George and Jeb will do anything to resolve your wrenching personal crisis. These guys will leap over state courts in a single bound, tromp with their alligator boots on a woman's wishes for her own death, and shred a couple hundred years of governing precedent as if it were written on that old, crumbly Constitution stock—as long as it serves their political purposes. Or as long as they think it does.

Schiavo, of course, is the Florida woman who has spent the past 15 years in a persistent vegetative state and the past two weeks at the red-hot center of our country's latest religious battle. Since 1990, when she suffered severe brain damage after her heart briefly stopped, she has been sometimes wakeful, but apparently without the ability to think and feel. After eight years in which she did not regain brain function, her husband and legal guardian, Michael, petitioned to have her feeding tube removed—something he said his wife had told him she wanted done if she ever got into such a situation. But Schiavo hadn't put her wishes in writing, and her grief-stricken parents have been battling him in court ever since. On Wednesday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta, declined to take up the case.

This personal tragedy might have been just that, if Jeb hadn't latched on to it, using every power of his office—and then some—in an attempt to get what he wanted. Although state courts had repeatedly agreed that her tube could be removed, the Florida governor ordered it reinserted in 2003. Then he appointed a physician and lawyer to be Schiavo's guardian; after reviewing the case, the guardian found that Schiavo was in fact in a persistent vegetative state and that the courts had done their jobs. Frustrated, Jeb joined with Schiavo's parents in taking the remarkable step of asking Congress to transfer their case to federal court.

Cue the all-out culture war.

Suddenly, Terri Schiavo was on her way to being the great political issue that would excite the pro-life base, as a Republican memo floating around Washington recently put it. The case would pluck the same nerves fired by the anti-abortion movement—but without ever mentioning the tricky A-word. Her death, and the macabre fight to stop it, would be the new partial-birth debate, only more heartrending. Or so religious conservatives believed.

Soon George was cutting his vacation short to show his concern (a first for the president). Terri's parents were off to see the first of three federal judges. And Jeb was trying to get custody of Schiavo transferred to the state of Florida after finding an expert who finally told him what he wanted to hear: that Schiavo may not really be in a persistent vegetative state.

But each judge, at every turn, ruled against Schiavo's parents. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider their case. And the Florida court refused Jeb's arguments for taking custody of Terri away from her husband. Perhaps it was because Jeb's expert hadn't actually examined her, or maybe because he works for a Christian think tank that aims to insert biblical principles into medicine, the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.

The folks at CBHD, who advocate against such things as reproductive technologies and birth control for married couples, fit right in among the religious conservatives who have been going on about the sanctity of marriage. Yet now they're deciding that Michael Schiavo shouldn't be allowed to make a decision for his wife. And that's just the beginning of the hypocrisy in this case. Many of the folks who dragged Congress in to override the decision of the Florida courts insist that the federal government should respect states' rights on other occasions—when they're banning same-sex marriage, say. And they defended the extraordinary legislation allowing Congress to weigh in as a moral matter, even though it applied only to Schiavo.

Then there's George Bush, who as governor of Texas presided over the executions of 152 inmates, going on about "the culture of life." Never mind that six years ago he signed a Texas state law giving hospitals the right to remove life support when there is no chance of recovery and a family is unable to pay for care. Just two weeks ago, the law was used to remove a feeding tube from a six-month-old against the family's wishes.

George Bush's change of heart should resolve any doubt that, at least on the president's part, the Terri Schiavo showdown has been a matter of politics rather than principle. While the religious conservatives pushing to "save" Schiavo insisted that she wasn't in a persistent vegetative state and had a chance of improving, most want a person in her condition kept alive no matter the prognosis. "Her worth in God's eyes makes her physical condition truly irrelevant," as the Focus on the Family website put it. The connection between a woman with no cognitive function and other people's fetuses and embryos isn't lost on Operation Rescue, the National Right to Life Committee, the Pro-Life Action League, and the like, which have shifted their single-minded obsessiveness from abortion to Schiavo.

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