The Terri Schiavo case was no sideshow. As her parents’ legal appeals failed repeatedly, as protests and press conferences wound into what was almost certainly the final phase of sorrow, recrimination and relief, the entire episode might have seemed a bizarre, media-driven distraction from pressing issues of war and the economy. In fact, the case goes to the heart of political choices confronting the country.
For leaders of the Christian right, the case was only their most recent attempt to elevate to the level of national crusade issues like gay unions and abstinence-only sex education. Each invokes moral alarm (the morality determined by the self-righteous) against considered, scientifically informed public policy, and each involves a demand for state intrusion into well-established zones of privacy and civil rights. Each also serves as a surrogate issue for a movement whose main target is abortion rights–rights that retain overwhelming public support. Antiabortion fanatics who preened before the Pinellas Park press corps were not so much speaking to the general public as raising the temperature of their own faithful.
The Schiavo case would probably have remained marginal but for the 2003 intervention of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who pushed through his state legislature the same kind of attack on unanimous Schiavo court rulings that Tom DeLay and the White House would later try at the federal level. The Bush clan takes on no issue without political calculation, and here the math was precise. The religious right remembers well that grandfather Prescott Bush was Planned Parenthood’s best friend in the Senate and that father George H.W. Bush was staunchly pro-choice up to the moment of his selection as Ronald Reagan’s running mate. Neither Bush brother ever misses a chance to prove his Christian-right allegiance. Just ten months after Jeb’s unsuccessful intervention in the Schiavo case, the votes and phone banks of Florida’s Christian right helped to determine a national election. DeLay, whose own family once made a life-ending decision like Michael Schiavo’s about DeLay’s father, now panders to the same constituency to save his own skin.
The attack on an independent judiciary is why the case is so relevant to the immediate future–notably the imminent confirmation battles over George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. The language of virtually every far-right leader discussing the Schiavo case was devoted to delegitimizing the federal judiciary and stoking resentment at the court system as a whole. Jerry Falwell: “Just because there is a judge somewhere in the world who would give an estranged husband like that the time of day tells you how bad the court system is.” Richard Viguerie: “The judiciary is out of control.” Such talk softens up the public for the confirmation battles ahead and, more important, feeds the right’s sense of its victimization by public institutions. Taking back the courts is the right’s post-Schiavo rallying cry.
Where is all this headed? In ways reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, polls suggest a welcome sense in the Schiavo case that the right overplayed its hand, that the American people maintain a bedrock commitment to privacy and an unease with the far right’s fervor. But it’s also important to remember that while impeachment failed, Democrats lost the White House in 2000. The White House is counting on the public sense of a delegitimized court system surviving longer than unease with moral crusaders. It is counting, as well, on the evident confusion in Democratic Congressional ranks about the real issues in the Schiavo case. Most important, the White House and Republican Congressional leaders are counting on the Christian right’s sense of being victimized by the courts to embolden their efforts; in the coming campaign to remake America’s federal judiciary, they see the protesters of Pinellas Park as their shock troops. They must not be allowed to succeed. The Schiavo case foretells a broader assault on courts as bastions of secular public policy. It is not a moral but a political crusade.