ONTARIO, Calif. — Seldom can I recall any issue in America producing as much emotion and division as the case of Terri Schiavo. The Iraq war has not come close to reaching this level of emotional expression. After being denied food and water for 13 days, her death on March 31, at 41 years of age, brings merciful closure to her suffering. By contrast, it leaves the American body politic with festering sores that will not soon heal.
The division in public opinion reveals several contradictions of political life. Friends of mine who vehemently oppose the death penalty but support a woman’s unfettered right to an abortion — an interesting contradiction in itself — celebrated the numerous decisions of the American legal system that supported the medically supervised dehydration and starvation of Terri Schiavo.
Conservative friends, most of who supported Terri’s right to life as they support the right to life of unborn children, reject government intervention in the lives of families. Yet, it was Terri’s husband who made the decision to disconnect her from her feeding tube and end her life.
It is fair to say that all the organs of American government failed Terri. Although she was declared in a “persistent vegetative state,” she could breathe on her own and swallow her own saliva. At times, she seemed capable of responding to simple stimuli. While doctors said she was “brain dead,” a few said she was conscious.
None of the courts to which Terri’s parents applied ordered a brain scan or other tests, none of which had been administered in recent years, to determine if Terri was capable of conscious responses. Although Terri required a feeding tube for sustenance, she was not terminally ill (a reason often given to justify euthanasia). She was not in a comma and was not on life support.
Her husband, who now has a second family, used the following evidence with the courts to “pull the plug” on Terri: When Terri was 25, she said in response to a television program or programs that she would not want to be kept alive artificially if she were unable to care for herself. I hope no one holds me to what I said in a casual moment at 25.
What bothered most people was the incredible cruelty of letting this woman die, slowly, day by day, by starvation and dehydration. If her death was inevitable in her encounter with the American legal system, perhaps doctors should have administered a lethal dose of some solution that would have killed her instantaneously. Rightly, civilization recoils in horror at this prospect as do doctors, as their pledge is to life not to death.
Yet, what is the real difference between doctors actively involved in the death of this woman and doctors who medically supervised her death by denying her water and food? Which is the greater mercy? Many Americans think that Terri Schiavo was murdered, and they are mad as hornets at elected officials, especially at state and federal judges who ignored her misery, disconnecting law from moral sensibility.
In 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln, speaking on the subject of the “perpetuation of our political institutions,” argued that the “attachment of the people” is the principal bulwark to government and the laws. When this attachment is eroded because the “laws be continually despised,” the government will not last as “the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated.”
The agony of Terri’s last days and death will not cause a revolution in the United States. This sorry and sorrowful episode will, however, erode respect for law and the courts, bring them into contempt, and reinforce the belief by all too many Americans that the instruments of justice are indifferent to their most deeply held values.
For Terri’s mother and father, she is a daughter no more. For these citizens, Terri is a cause and a reminder.
For some, it will drive them away from the political process and from support of a country in which so many are patriots. For others, it will energize their commitment to political change. The divisions over the Schiavo case will, among other things, bring about pressure on elected officials for the appointment of more conservative, right-to-life jurists.
It will also deepen the division between the “blue” or Kerry states and the “red” states of U.S. President George W. Bush. The liberal states that voted for John F. Kerry in the 2004 presidential contest rim the country’s two coasts and the upper Midwest. Except for California and the Pacific Northwest, they are the old, rust-belt states, liberal Democrat bastions that have been losing population and electoral votes to Bush’s “red” states.
Schiavo’s saga became part of America’s culture wars. For red state voters, Terri’s cause is part of a picture that includes opposition to abortion, homosexual marriage, and America’s drug and pop music culture. This group of citizens grows stronger by the decade as demonstrated by the presidential election of 2004 along with the simultaneous passage in 11 states of initiatives prohibiting homosexual marriage.
Not many blue state spokespersons understand this. The Rev. Jesse Jackson does. Embracing Terri’s cause, he was genuinely moved by her plight. Throwing his weight into the battle to save her life, his presence at her Pinellas Park, Florida, hospice demonstrated to the assembled crowd, which was mostly of a conservative hue — and to a national television audience that, as a liberal, he shared their values and cared as intensely as they did. Is this a lone occurrence?
Will Jackson be followed by other blue state spokespersons who swallow their liberal prejudices against the “old time” religion, reaching out to this large, religious block of voters who are now even more firmly in the Republican column because of the national agony over Terri’s death? Perhaps one area will produce agreement without controversy. For Terri, may she rest in peace.
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