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   Vol. 69/No. 14           April 11, 2005  
‘Terri’s Law’ backfires on its sponsors
TAMPA, Florida—Overwhelming support among the American people for the right to privacy—especially in personal medical decisions—has forced the government, from the president and Congress to Florida governor John Ellis Bush and state legislators there, to abide by the decisions of the courts in the case of Terri Schiavo. The courts have repeatedly affirmed Michael Schiavo’s position that his wife, who has been in a persistent vegetative state for the last 15 years, would not have wanted to prolong her life artificially.

Congress met in emergency session March 20—two days after Schiavo’s feeding tube had been removed—to pass “A bill to provide for the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo,” which aimed to take the decision-making power over her fate out of the hands of her spouse and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo. President Bush signed it into law soon afterward.

This political and legal maneuver fell flat.

On March 25, several legal doors closed for Terri Schiavo’s parents, who have fought their son-in-law Michael Schiavo for seven years to keep their 41-year-old daughter’s feeding tube from being removed.

A three-judge panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta again denied an emergency order to reinsert the feeding tube. The court agreed with U.S. District Judge James Whittemore, who rejected the same request earlier in the day. And a state court judge denied a motion by the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) to take Schiavo into protective custody.

The Tampa Tribune reported on a March 23 showdown between separate branches of government, each with jurisdiction over different cop agencies. Agreeing with the claim by her parents that Terri Schiavo may have been “misdiagnosed” and that she was being “abused,” Florida governor Bush ordered state agents of the DCF to take her into custody. But Pinellas County Circuit Judge George Greer blocked the move. Bush said that he would not violate court orders by seizing Schiavo.

On March 26 the legal battle came to an end as the Florida Supreme Court dismissed an appeal from Schiavo’s parents.

The calculated grandstanding by Republican politicians, with the acquiescence of their Democratic counterparts, in support of a small, right-wing campaign, organized by leaders of Operation Rescue, has backfired, even among some of their most ardent supporters.

“As Terri Schiavo slips toward death, her final days have become an unseemly circus. Enough. Let her die in peace and with dignity,” the New York Post, a staunch supporter of the Bush administration, wrote in a March 30 front-page editorial. “Congress, to its discredit, added endgame drama to the debate. So did President Bush; it was not his finest hour.”

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a large majority both in Florida and throughout the country did not support the involvement of the federal or state government in this case; that they agreed with Michael Schiavo’s right to order the removal of his wife’s feeding tube; and that they themselves would not want to be kept alive artificially under similar circumstances.

A sampling of letters to the editor in the March 22 Tampa Tribune illustrated how President Bush and other political figures miscalculated when they thought that their “culture of life” stance would increase their standing among broad sections of the American people. “I am thoroughly disgusted with my party right now…. If the Republicans continue to forget that the biggest part of a conservative foundation is limited government, I may have to stop voting,” said one letter.

Another reader wrote, “It is inconceivable that Congress and the president are making every possible effort to keep alive (it is not really a life) a person who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years…. If they are successful it basically says that a husband can not make a life decision for his wife. It appears to me that would invalidate every marriage license that has ever been issued…. Republican Party, you have lost my support, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty of company.”

In a front page article in the March 27 St. Petersburg Times, staff writer Wes Allison wrote, “Polls show most Americans, including most evangelical Christians, believe the government should have stayed away.” A CBS News poll released March 23 found that two-thirds of evangelical Christians and conservatives opposed the Schiavo law passed by Congress.

Allison reported that Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, has received 3,000 e-mails about the case in the past week. “At first they overwhelmingly favored feeding Schiavo. But as people began absorbing what Congress had done, the mood changed.”

Operation Rescue, the rightist group behind the campaign to reinsert Schiavo’s feeding tube, gained the spotlight for organizing a campaign in the early 1990s to mobilize anti-abortion forces to shut down abortion clinics. After scoring a victory in Wichita, Kansas, in 1991 the rightists were pushed back in city after city as they were outmobilized by defenders of a woman’s right to choose.

In the course of this ongoing confrontation, a half million people marched in Washington, D.C., in April 1992, demonstrating mass opposition to turning back the clock on women’s rights. In April 2004 an even more massive march in Washington again made clear that millions in this country stand behind the right of women to make the private decision of whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term.

Other rightists have also entered the debate. Ultrarightist politician Patrick Buchanan came out March 29 in and interview with right-wing radio commentator Don Imus for executive action to force the feeding tube back into Schiavo. “Look, if a woman is dying of thirst, you go give her some water,” Buchanan said.

Florida governor John Ellis Bush “should have just gone [to the Pinellas County hospice] with the state troopers, taken Terri Schiavo, had the tube reinserted, and let [Florida Judge George Greer] hold him in contempt,” Buchanan said. “If the governor had gone in there and done it, then held a press conference and said…[‘]This was wrongly decided…so I’m asserting executive authority in place of judicial power.’ Then just let the chips fall where they may.”

Despite such demagoguery, the rightist protests at the hospice where Schiavo has been receiving care, however, have remained small.
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Bad misjudgment by Bush, DeLay  
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