Is there a doctor in the White House? George W. Bush promised to get the government off our backs, but the federal presence has grown, not shrunk. Now he adds yet one more chore, that of doctor of last resort. Now every fearful disabled person can make his or her plea to live or die directly to the president.
That is the meaning in last week’s congressional victory for the pro-life forces on partial birth abortion, which marks the first time abortion has been made a federal criminal offense. And perhaps more important, that win in Congress, together with Governor Jeb Bush’s intercession to put the feeding tube back into Terri Schiavo in Florida, places the government formally in the new role of doctor to the nation.
By the start of this week, however, Jeb Bush’s political grandstanding showed signs of backfiring. It was only a few days ago that he and the Florida legislature knuckled under to heavy lobbying from Randall Terry (founder of the pro-life Operation Rescue), the rest of the religious right, and advocacy groups for the disabled in denying the husband of Terri Schiavo, a woman who had been lying in a vegetative state for a decade, the right to pull the plug. Her parents didn’t want to see her unhooked. And Jeb Bush came to their rescue. In what her sister called “an absolute miracle,” Terri Schiavo is once again receiving fluids at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Florida, after Jeb Bush’s executive order rescinded the removal of her feeding tube.
In its particulars, the new Florida legislation is narrow: The governor can take control if a feeding tube has been removed from someone in a coma and that decision is contested. So some observers are saying not to worry. Jeb’s Law doesn’t change anything, and it’s just a political gesture aimed at pumping up the state’s Christian right for the national election next year. However it was intended, Jeb’s Law is meant to boost the campaigns of Republican state senator Dan Webster and GOP House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who are running for Democratic senator Bob Graham’s seat. The national election could be a problem for the Republicans if Graham decides to run again. Based on past races, he should surely win easily, and in the process maybe even carry the Democratic presidential candidate along with him. But Graham, who backed out of the presidential race, still hasn’t said whether he’s up to making the Senate race one more time. The Republicans’ control of the U.S. Senate is extremely thin, and Graham is under considerable pressure to keep the seat for the Democrats.
But Jeb and his buds may be in for a shock. The overall implications of this legislation for the Bush brothers could result in a backlash from conservatives who have ceaselessly preached the sanctity of the family and making government smaller. It exposes the rent in the Republican right between the libertarian-minded get-the-government-off-our-backs crowd and the Christian advocates of a strong central state who want to hammer home their social policies on the local level, too. In one view, state governments become the law of the land. In the other, the president and his central government quite literally determine who has sex when and where—and now, who lives or dies. It ought to strike fear into the older voters in Florida and elsewhere who can see family members arguing over who gets to pull the plug—or not pull the plug—and in the disabled, who, if not carefully protected from political interference, can easily lose the power to make their own decisions to those who are more physically in control.
The big political surprise was the emergence of the political might of the disabled lobby, revolving around the figure of Mark Pickup, founder of the Edmonton, Canada, Christian ministry Human Life Matters. Pickup, who has multiple sclerosis, jumped into the fight only a month ago by petitioning Edmonton’s representative in the Canadian parliament to offer Schiavo temporary asylum. In an interview Monday with the Voice, Pickup said he could see “the legal doors closing on Terri” and approached her dad, asking if he would be open to an offer of asylum in Canada. The father’s response, said Pickup, was “any port in a storm.” At once, Pickup began recruiting a contingent of Canadian doctors who “offered to take care of her free of charge,” along with nurses and specialists who volunteered to find therapy and treatment for her.
But Canadian immigration minister Denis Coderre refused to get involved and turned down Pickup’s plea, saying it was a U.S. issue. Pickup turned to deluging Jeb Bush’s office with 50,000 e-mails and 140,000 petitions, demanding that the governor save Schiavo’s life. “What this has done,” Pickup told the Western Catholic Reporter recently, “is what people have suspected for a very long time—that people with severe disabilities are being discounted and, in fact, denied treatment. The question we must now ask ourselves is, ‘Is this how we want to treat the most vulnerable?’ ”
Additional reporting: Ashley Glacel