With their handling of the heart-wrenching Terri Schiavo case, George W. Bush and his Republican allies in tragedy exploitation were awash in the currency of Washington: hypocrisy. The party that has looked to cut Medicaid services to millions of poor Americans (to close a budget gap caused in part by tax cuts for the well-off) dramatically recalled all its House members to Washington to decry what it disingenuously claimed was a denial of care to one person who has been in a severely brain-damaged state for fifteen years. Self-proclaimed conservatives who denounce outcome-oriented judicial activism at the drop of a gavel pushed through arguably unconstitutional legislation aimed at short-circuiting court rulings and at achieving a specific decision. Bush, who as Texas governor signed a bill allowing spouses and guardians to “withdraw life-sustaining treatment” from patients who cannot communicate their wishes, returned from vacation (something he didn’t do in August 2001, when terrorism warnings were “blinking red,” according to the CIA) to declare to his right-wing fans, “It is always wise to err on the side of life.” (Tell that to Karla Faye Tucker.) Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a heart specialist presumably familiar with medical ethics, maintained that he could diagnose Schiavo, by watching a video several years old, more accurately than neurologists who’ve examined her in person. Tom DeLay, who is battling ethics problems, claimed that Schiavo required his crusading attention, although a guardian appointed by Florida Governor Jeb Bush had concluded in 2003 that the Florida judicial system “has done its job well” and that experts had found “within a high degree of medical certainty, that Theresa is in a persistent vegetative state.”

This has not been a battle over what conservatives call the “culture of life.” It has been a fight over the culture of law, the culture of privacy and the culture of personal autonomy. Guardians and medical experts render life-ending decisions every day. In fact, a hospital in Houston recently removed the breathing tube from a 6-month-old boy born with a fatal disease, against his mother’s wishes. DeLay didn’t sic Congress on the hospital. He and his cohorts intervened in the Schiavo matter because religious-right activists had turned it into a cause célèbre. To whip up their crowd, House speaker Dennis Hastert, DeLay and Frist inserted the federal government into a painful family conflict.

It has been anguishing to watch the struggle within Schiavo’s family. But, as conservatives are fond of saying, not every problem requires intervention from Washington. The Florida courts over the course of years worked through the thorny case and applied the relevant laws. Experts were consulted, medical and legal evidence reviewed. Most Americans seem to agree with that approach. Large majorities, even among evangelicals, oppose Congressional intervention. Politics and state-endorsed religion have no room in our private lives, despite what is being said by the self-righteous hypocrites in Washington.