A Political Circus Comes to Its Personal Close


So Terri Schiavo, at long last, is gone.

The 41-year-old Florida woman, who had spent some 15 years in a persistent vegetative state and the past two weeks at the red-hot center of our country’s latest religious battle, died Thursday morning at a Pinellas Park hospice. Just yesterday, her parents lost another round in their legal battle to have her feeding tube reinserted, against the wishes of Schiavo’s husband. A spokesperson for the family told reporters that blood relatives, including her parents, had been kept from Schiavo’s side during her final hours, but that her parents had spent the morning praying over the body.

What might otherwise have been a personal tragedy had become instead a political circus, with everyone from George and Jeb Bush to the members of Congress to Reverend Jesse Jackson riding in to argue that Schiavo would have wanted to live.

The right-to-life movement seemed to know no bounds. 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.

Since 1990, when Schiavo suffered severe brain damage after her heart briefly stopped, she had 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 had been battling him in court ever since. On Wednesday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta, declined to take up the case.

Jeb latched on to the case years ago, 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, could have been 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 have been 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 were deciding that Michael Schiavo shouldn’t be allowed to make a decision for his wife. And that was 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 was 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.

Taking on the Schiavo case was supposed to give the Bushes an opportunity to appease the religious conservatives who put them into office. The problem for the stop-at-nothing brothers, though, is that the conservative Catholics and evangelicals fixated on Schiavo are even further out of the mainstream when it comes to the right to die than they are on abortion. While some people are truly torn about what restrictions should apply when dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, few think anyone should be forced to hover on the edges of existence if they don’t want to and have no chance of recovery. Nearly 80 percent of Americans wouldn’t want to be kept alive in Terri’s situation, according to an ABC News poll. Even more opposed federal intervention in the Schiavo case, including 72 percent of Republicans, according to a CBS News poll. Meanwhile, the president’s approval rating is falling, having just hit 43 percent, down from 49 last month.

Talk about a great political issue! A clear winner finally landed in the Democrats’ lap. Unfortunately, few seemed to recognize it. No senator, Democrat or Republican, stopped the legislation giving Schiavo’s parents the opportunity to take the case to federal court. Forty-seven Democrats supported the bill in the House. And even Howard Dean, head of the Democratic Party, seemed to roll over, offering no comment when asked about Bush’s support of the law.

It’s hard to imagine what exactly the party, having lost control of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House, stood to lose by coming down on the side of legal precedent and the overwhelming majority of the public. Indeed, negative consequences of the Schiavo circus seem more likely to befall those who have played dead than those who were playing superhero. The vast majority of people who supported her right to die don’t have the combination of real power and delusion that allows the Bush brothers to wreak havoc in people’s personal lives, but at least we can vote.

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano Graduate School, New School University.