The Schiavo Case Seven Years Later

Politicians should not limit those choices arbitrarily and should never seek to impose their own moral judgment on complex deliberations in a religiously diverse nation.
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New Messaging From Politicians

Sometimes progress toward human dignity seems agonizingly slow, especially affirming the role of choice at the end of life. So it's heartening when evidence of seismic change shows up. Last week's presidential debate lifted our hearts for this reason.

Contenders for the Republican nomination were in Tampa, and questioners brought up Terri Schiavo. Mrs. Schiavo, you'll recall, had been in a permanent vegetative state for fifteen years in 2005, when the family's conflict over whether she would want continued artificial feeding rocked the state of Florida and riveted the nation. State courts had already ruled repeatedly and consistently that the tube feeding should be discontinued, consistent with her expressed wishes prior to the event that rendered her insensate.

Politicians in Florida and Washington, D.C., were convinced voters wanted them to intervene in the tragic deliberations of the divided family. Procedural manipulations and governmental excesses stoked a spectacle of controversy for years. The litany of hearings, re-hearings and appeals is too long to recite here. Toward the end Congress went to extraordinary lengths to override Florida state courts. They issued a subpoena for the vegetative Mrs. Schiavo to appear at a hearing and passed a special law to override jurisdiction of the state, placing the case back in the federal court that had repeatedly deferred to its state counterpart. All the lawmakers believed in states' rights, of course.

Senator Frist, a cardiac surgeon, assessed Mrs. Schiavo's neurological function from the Senate floor via a short video clip of her head movements. Posturing, sanctimonious politicians of all stripes declared their devotion to life and their outrage that a feeding tube could be considered futile medical treatment.

On March 20, 2005, the New York Times front page reported, "Congress Ready to Approve Bill in Schiavo Case," and detailed the fervor that had seized that august body. Mine was a lone voice of alarm in the article. "'In this political climate, with this kind of thing going on in Congress, everyone must take steps to protect themselves -- making an advance directive, documenting their wishes, making sure their loved ones know about them,' said Barbara Coombs Lee, CEO of Compassion & Choices. ... 'The greatest fear of our constituents is that other people -- complete strangers -- will make end-of-life decisions for them,' Ms. Lee added. 'And God forbid that it would be politicians.'"

I've always been proud of that quote. Because as it turned out, most of the nation agreed with me. Congress did pass the bill, in the middle of the night on Palm Sunday, and President Bush flew overnight from Texas in his jammies to sign it 30 minutes later. Nevertheless, federal courts followed the law, refrained from intervening, and Schiavo died peacefully on March 31.

One month later Harris polled Americans on how they viewed the Schiavo debacle. Congress fared worst, with 58 percent of respondents saying they disapproved of Congress's behavior. Only 35 percent approved. Florida lawmakers fared almost as badly, with 57 percent disapproval, 33 percent approval. The president and governor came off little better.

In May 2005, The New York Times Magazine published an in-depth profile of Rick Santorum. It reported that Santorum was one of the lead senators urging federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case. He told the author that he informed Bill Frist, the majority leader, that he (Santorum) would keep the Senate in session through its Easter break if lawmakers tried to adjourn without first intruding in the Schiavo case. Santorum is quoted, ''I said to the leader: 'We're not leaving here until we pass this.'"

Fast-forward to last month's debate in Tampa. The political calculation has changed drastically in seven years, and Santorum backs away substantially from his enthusiasm of 2005. In Tampa he asserted that he "did not call for congressional intervention." Rather, "I called for judicial intervention on behalf of the parents."

Oh, I see the difference! But after seven years, 14 appeals, five federal lawsuits and three denials from the U.S. Supreme Court, only an Act of Congress could have prolonged the courtroom circus any further. That is what Santorum fought for, and that is what the people judged unseemly meddling. In contrast, last month Santorum even affirmed the morality of refusing resuscitative efforts, adding, "I think that's a decision that people should be able to make."

Santorum's fellow debaters chimed in with updated political messaging. Newt Gingrich went so far as to say the whole Schiavo controversy "has nothing to do with whether or not you as a citizen have a right to have your own end-of-life prescription, which is totally appropriate for you to do as a matter of your values in consultation with your doctor." It's anybody's guess whether Gingrich really supports the medical practice of aid in dying; but on its face, his statement would resonate with the 70 percent of Americans who do.

Ron Paul said the Schiavo case was "way out of proportion" and he would have preferred to see the decision made at the state level, which, of course, is where it was ultimately made.

I don't pull up this history to accuse politicians of insincerity or point out inconsistencies. I just want folks to notice that our nation has changed, and expectations of our politicians have changed when it comes to end-of-life decisions.

Seven years ago it was different. But today we expect politicians to stay out of the personal end-of-life choices we make, in consultation with our physicians and consistent with our own beliefs and values. We expect the people we elect to show some respect for the heartbreaking decisions families make every day at the bedsides of their loved ones. Politicians should not limit those choices arbitrarily and should never seek to impose their own moral judgment on complex deliberations in a religiously diverse nation.

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