I cannot remember a time when Congress and the President have acted with more egregious political opportunism and shameless trafficking in human misery than last weekend, leaping into the fifteen-year-long Terri Schiavo saga at the last possible moment as grandstanding defenders of the defenseless.

Although Schiavo’s relatives on both sides of the issue are assuredly acting in good faith, national politicians certainly are not.

That was clear even before ABC News revealed the contents of a memo circulating among Senate Republicans that trilled over how exploiting this complex case in the most simplistic way would “excite” the GOP base and would be “a great political issue.”

Otherwise, they would have taken up this tortuous issue in earnest long ago. Better yet, they should have trusted the Florida state legal system and doctors who have examined Schiavo’s case over and over again.

Instead, facing a media storm dominated by heart-rending but inconclusive video clips of Schiavo, Republican demagogues led by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas)–who is battling ethics problems–took the easy, cynical way out. They rushed through a bill, past cowed Democrats, that moves the case to federal court and applies only to Schiavo’s parents.

Even more shocking, President Bush did what he would not do in August 2001 when terrorism warnings were “blinking red,” in the words of the then-head of the CIA: He returned to Washington from one of his many sacrosanct vacations, in this case to sign this ill-conceived legislation.

Despite the shrill howls of outrage that have been inciting politicians from talk radio, 70 percent of Americans polled nationally by ABC News called Congressional intervention in the Schiavo case inappropriate, with 58 percent holding that view “strongly.”

It seems obvious that such a delicate life-and-death case should not be decided by radio shock jocks hunting for ratings, embattled politicians looking for wedge issues or even majority rule–in this case the 63 percent of Americans polled who believe that Schiavo’s feeding tube should be removed. Instead, it is family members, doctors and, when needed as an impartial arbitrator, the courts that must carefully and dispassionately weigh the extremely complex medical, ethical and legal issues involved.

Which, in fact, is exactly what happened in the Schiavo case. Impartial doctors and judges methodically examined Schiavo and the legal case, respectively, for seven years, consistently backing the guardianship rights of Schiavo’s husband and his decision to end artificial life-support treatments that kept her alive in what the Florida courts concluded is “a persistent vegetative state…with no hope of a medical cure.”

Further, the federal courts already had the power to act if they believed a fundamental right had been abrogated. On Friday, the US Supreme Court turned down an appeal to intervene–as it had done in 2001 and earlier this year. But that didn’t stop the Christian right and the politicians in its thrall from seizing on the Schiavos’ plight to advance their “right to life” agenda. If only this agenda were consistent. For example, as governor of Texas, George W. Bush refused to review cases involving mentally retarded death row inmates. Nor can I remember any time Congress rushed back from a vacation to deal with real-time incidents of genocide in the Balkans, Rwanda or Sudan. This is selective compassion of the most pandering sort.

In the end, it is not about who is right in the depressingly ugly battle between Schiavo’s parents on one side and her husband on the other. Those of us who have dealt with the slow death of a beloved relative in the hospital are all too familiar with the pain in facing the myriad decisions that can tear us apart.

What this case is really about is keeping politics and state-endorsed religion out of our private lives. Many seniors like me now must dread that our most personal and painful private matters might be turned into political footballs by those cravenly seeking approval from certain voting blocs, or that we could be imprisoned against our wishes inside a dead body because of somebody else’s religious beliefs. This is why seniors polled by ABC were the most likely of any age group to support the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube.

The one bright spot in this sad story is that millions of Americans are now talking about how they want to be cared for medically and are writing or reviewing living wills.

As the polls show, while our Beltway politicians are making fools of themselves, those of us in the real world are trying to ensure that our most private moments are not turned into a humiliating circus.