Maybe, just maybe, the religious right and its Republican friends have finally gone too far with the Terri Schiavo case. Americans may tell pollsters the earth was created in six days flat and dinosaurs shared the planet with Adam and Eve, but I don’t believe they want Tom DeLay to be their personal physician. I don’t think they want fanatics moaning and praying outside the hospital while they’re making hard decisions. I don’t think they want people getting arrested trying to “feed” their comatose relatives, or issuing death threats against judges and spouses in the name of “life.” I don’t think John Q. Public wants Jeb Bush to adopt his wife or Newt Gingrich to call her by her first name or Senator Frist to diagnose her by video, or Jesse Jackson to pop in at the last minute for a prayer and a photo-op.
The Terri Schiavo freak show is so deeply crazy, so unhinged, such a brew of religiosity and hypocrisy and tabloid sensationalism, just maybe it is clueing people in to where the right’s moral triumphalism is leading us. Before Congress jumped into the act, Republicans may have seen a great opportunity to paint the Democrats as the “party of death.” No thanks to the Dems, who mostly cowered, the stratagem backfired: The weekend after Schiavo’s feeding tube was withdrawn, 75 percent of Americans told CBS pollsters they wanted government to stay out of end-of-life issues, and 82 percent thought Congress and the President should have kept away. Jesse Jackson seems not to have gotten the memo–he’s calling for the Florida legislature to overturn thirty years of carefully crafted medical ethics and pass a previously rejected bill requiring patients in a persistent vegetative state to remain on life support forever, unless they’ve left a written directive to the contrary. If that’s the “religious left,” forget it.
It’s about time Americans woke up. The Schiavo case only looks unprecedented: For decades, women seeking to terminate pregnancies have faced gantlets of screamers, invasions of privacy, violence in the name of “saving babies,” charges of murder and of evil motives, politically motivated legal obstacles, spurious medical “expertise” (abortion causes breast cancer; Terri Schiavo just needs therapy). There is the same free-floating vitriol: Abortion is the “Silent Holocaust,” while, according to Peggy Noonan, those who support Ms. Schiavo’s right to die are on “a low road that twists past Columbine and leads toward Auschwitz” (that would be the same road that Tom DeLay and his family went down when they withheld life support from his critically injured father–the same road, in fact, that Robert Schindler, Terri’s father, took when he turned off his mother’s life support). Randall Terry, the Operation Rescue showman who wants to make America a “Christian nation” and to “execute” doctors who perform abortions, is the Schindlers’ chief strategist; other Operation Rescuers in the hospice parking lot include the Rev. Pat Mahoney, who freely gives out Michael Schiavo’s home address; Cheryl Sullenger, who served two years for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic in 1987; and Scott Heldreth, a convicted sex offender who told an AP reporter that driving long hours to the hospice and getting arrested was all his 10-year-old son’s idea.
In this transposition of the abortion drama, Terri Schiavo is the defenseless fetus; her husband, Michael, is the callous “convenience” aborter; and the Schindlers are the would-be adoptive couple doomed to childlessness by tyrannical judges. But there’s a difference. Abortion happens to women–bad girls, sluts. Because of the shame and secrecy around abortion, you can believe, probably wrongly, that you don’t know anyone who’s had one and, thanks to your virtuous life, that you would never need one yourself. But anyone can fall into a permanent coma, and death comes to us all. Millions of people have had to make end-of-life decisions for loved ones or for themselves; they’ve had to think about what a life is–a pulse? a reflex? a thought?–and what a person is, and what that person would have wanted. And because of this collective experience, most Americans know that to “err on the side of life,” as the enthusiastic death-penalty fan and Medicaid-cutter George W. Bush advises, is just a slogan. Your wife with Alzheimer’s who’s stopped eating and drinking is alive. Do you intubate or not? Your father in a stroke-induced coma is alive. Do you treat his pneumonia or see it as “the old man’s friend”? When do you go for aggressive treatment, when do you let the person go, when do you decide the person has already gone and only their body is there in the bed? Over three decades, Americans won the right to make these painful, intimate decisions for themselves. That right–not disability rights or the possibility of medical miracles–is what is at stake in the Schiavo case. Most people, especially young people like Terri Schiavo, are never going to write living wills: Should no weight at all be given their spoken wishes or the conviction of their loved ones that, like Tom DeLay’s father, they “would never have wanted to live like this”?
For many ordinary Americans, the stem cell debate was the first time the religious right strove to deprive them of something valuable. It’s one thing to make women pay for sex with childbirth, or to deprive your children of modern scientific education, or to ostracize homosexuals, but it’s going too far to value a frozen embryo more than Cousin Jim with Parkinson’s. Now, with the Schiavo case, Americans have another opportunity to ask themselves if they really want to live in Randall Terry’s world, where the next Michael and Terri Schiavo could be anyone of us.
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The Bosnian war is over, but for children who lost family and homes, the trauma continues. In what is now a Nation tradition, the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt is again asking readers to help fund its summer camp for Bosnian children of all ethnicities: $130 makes you a “godparent,” funding one child for a two-week stay, but donations of all sizes are welcome. This year, BIF hopes to expand its highly successful program bringing Israeli and Palestinian kids together. Please make out checks to: Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt and mail them to me at The Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003. I’ll forward them, with many thanks.