The Terri Schiavo Case — The Politics of Life and Death


The recent debate around Terri Schiavo appeared to be over the rights of incapacitated people and when they should die if they do not give legal instructions. In reality, Terri Schiavo was hijacked by the media, Christian evangelicals, and their supporters in the White House and Congress.

Ms. Schiavo’s parents, the Schindlers, carried on a long legal battle with their son-in-law, Michael Schiavo, over guardianship and withdrawal of Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube. Twenty-one separate court decisions were made over 15 years in the Schiavo case. The Schindlers went public with the family fight and asked Randall Terry to be their spokesperson. Terry is a Christian extremist and founder of the violently anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue/Operation Save America.

On the weekend after Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube was withdrawn, President Bush and Congressional Republicans held an unprecedented vote to pass a new bill specific to Terri Schiavo’s case allowing Federal judges to intervene. The maneuver was an attempt to overturn the Florida state courts, while shoring up the evangelical Christian base that mobilized to put Bush back into the White House.

Polls showed the public overwhelmingly opposed this. In a TIME poll, 75% said it was wrong for Congress to intervene and 70% were against the President intervening. This blows apart the idea that the Religious Right represents a “moral majority,” when in fact they are a minority in this country.

Bush called on the nation to “build a culture of life, where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected.” A week before, he and the majority of the Republican caucus voted to cut Medicaid benefits. The bulk of Medicaid is spent on long-term care for the elderly and disabled.

When George Bush was governor, he signed the Texas Futile Care Law. Under this law, hospitals can discontinue life support against a family’s wishes if they are unable to pay the patient’s continued medical expenses and if there is a prognosis showing further care is futile.

Numerous judges and legal scholars have forcefully denounced the involvement of Congress and the President in this case. Federal courts repeatedly rejected Terri Schiavo’s parents’ claim that the courts should restore Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube and to have a de novo review of the case in a federal court.

The right to self-determination, or the doctrine of informed consent, provides the legal basis for a patient to refuse medical treatment or withdraw consent during treatment. Courts have unanimously concluded that the right to self-determination continues even if the individual is incapacitated.

Bush and the section of the ruling class that supports him are appealing to the most backward elements of both the Catholic and Protestant right wing. They have also used the Schiavo case to accelerate their assaults on the judicial system.

House Majority leader Tom DeLay reacted to Schiavo’s death by declaring, “The time will come for the men [judges] responsible for this to answer for their behavior.” (Ironically, in 1988 DeLay and his family removed life support from his own father.) Texas Republican John Cornyn gave an incendiary speech in the Senate, arguing that outrage against judicial activism might lead “to the point where some people engage in violence” against judges.

The Schiavo case primed Bush’s followers for an expected Supreme Court vacancy and a Senate debate over a Republican plan, the “nuclear option,” which would stop Democrats from filibustering judicial nominations. Republicans, who currently control two branches of the federal government, are fighting to leverage control of the third branch.

No reliance can be placed in the Democratic Party to defeat this or any other assault by the Republicans and their allies. The attacks of the right wing can be stopped if the working class and labor movement bring into mass struggle all of those whose economic and civil rights are being trampled on. Bush, the corporations that finance him, and the right wing that mobilizes around him are a minority that can be defeated.