Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Terri Schiavo

I haven't commented on the Terri Schiavo case before. I was generally aware of it, but I saw it as a private matter involving one of the toughest decisions a family ever has to make. I knew they had serious disagreements and had taken it to court in Florida. I knew the state courts had consistently decided in favor of the husband's primacy in the decision. I didn't really read all the opinions about it in blogs, and I didn't pay much attention to news reports. I didn't think anyone had any business intruding into a family's tragedy.

Then a bipartisan majority in Congress decided it was the business of the federal government. Despite all the blathering going on in the media and in the blogosphere, Congress has the power to intervene in the way they have. It's constitutional, but it's stupid. That's when I started really paying attention, looking at what the right-wing and left-wing press are saying, reading some of the Florida court opinions, and thinking about what various medical and legal experts have said.

This has become a case where not only the Florida judiciary but the federal judiciary are going to decide whether an individual citizen lives or dies. This citizen may or may not be in a persistent vegetative state; she may or may not have any chance for improvement and a life with some degree of meaning and value. It depends on which experts you choose to credit. As was mentioned in the Florida court's 2000 base decision in the case, all parties have a somewhat troubling degree of financial interest in the outcome. Finally, the citizen in question, Terri Schiavo, has never been represented in any court by an attorney whose only job was to defend her interests.

If this were a criminal case involving the death penalty, it would be a constitutional outrage. The citizen whose life hangs in the balance, whatever value that life may still have, is not represented. There is, in my opinion, enough conflicting evidence to create reasonable doubt as to the facts. It's well-established that certain mentally deficient defendants and minors cannot be executed. These issues alone would prevent any state or the federal government from killing a citizen.

I realize that Terri Schiavo is not a criminal defendant, but is not the outcome the same? Depending on the decisions being made in courts, she will be killed. The actions of Congress, and an earlier attempt by the Florida legislature, have made the case more than the tragic family decision it really is.

The behavior of some politicians in this case has been disgraceful. While some may be acting because of what they see as a moral imperative, many others are pursuing larger political agendas. In the process, they're showing themselves to be cynical ideological opportunists. How else to explain all the logical contradictions?

Liberals have somehow wrapped this case into their pro-choice agenda. They generally oppose the death penalty, but they want this woman to die as a result of government action. They usually favor federal power over the power given to states by the Tenth Amendment, in cases such as Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas, but in this case they want Florida left alone to make its own decisions. And while they're willing to go on TV and make all manner of statements condemning congressional intervention in a state matter, only a handful were willing to vote against it.

Conservatives aren't behaving any better. They've somehow twisted their thinking around to envelope this case in their pro-life agenda. When it comes to states executing their citizens, regardless of mental capacity, maturity, due process, or equal protection, they're all for it, except when a state makes a decision that will result in the death of a person they have sympathy for. They generally favor state's rights over federal power, but in this case they're perfectly happy to trample all over the routine exercise of judicial power by a state. And they're getting their faces on TV at every opportunity, inflaming public opinion through open demagoguery.

And President Bush. Instead of standing up for state's rights, which he purports to believe in, he came rushing back to Washington to sign a bill which tramples all over the constitutional power of the state of Florida. Instead of allowing himself to be pushed into this cynical exercise of federal power, he should have made a principled statement to the effect that he would not interfere in the legitimate exercise of state power. That may have required an awkward private phone call with his brother in Florida, but he should have done it anyway.

As I write this, the federal district court in Florida, acting under the jurisdiction given it by act of Congress and assent of the President, has declined to act to save Terri Schiavo's life. It seems likely that a federal appeals court will uphold the district court's decision and likely that the Supreme Court will again decline to hear it. As a matter of law, that outcome must have been obvious to most of the politicians involved.

And my opinion about what should happen to Terri Schiavo? I'm not going to say. It's none of my business.


Blogger Day Late Critic said...

I have to say that your post summed up the situation quite appropriately.

Thank you for reaffirming my faith in bloggers.

1:32 PM, March 22, 2005  
Blogger B said...

I am at a loss for words. The clarity and compassion in your writing is humbling. And of course I added a link to it.

7:52 PM, March 22, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I respect your views, but I don't agree. This is not a matter of sticking up for some one I have "sympathy" for. It's standing up for the innocent. Under our Constitution, we would never allow a criminal to die of starvation. Heck, people wouldn't even do this to a dog. This case directly implicates both the 5th and 14th Amendments.

Protecting innocent life is an absolute. "States rights" are not.

9:33 PM, March 22, 2005  
Blogger Junebugg said...

I agree with DC. Starving is never merciful. Even the Pope is getting in on it. Very well writen post. I'm not sure how I feel about her quality of life. We don't know if her mind is lucid and she can't communicate, or if she is as she appears. But if she is "put down" then it should be quick and painless.

11:29 PM, March 22, 2005  
Anonymous Howard said...

Hi Tom. Great post (as is often the case).

Now that you've chimed in on the topic, I couldn't resist airing out a few of my own thoughts on it.

I do err on the side of life, but I'll admit this situation is a difficult one; I'm not sure what I'd do if I was the decision-maker for my wife or other close relative. That said, I'm sick of the extremes on either side of this argument trying to demonize each other.

2:46 PM, March 23, 2005  
Blogger Bill O. Writes said...

Having both a brother who was paralyzed over 40 years ago, and a father that went through a similar issue two years ago. My brother survived to eventually earn three college degrees, and is a Certified Data Processor.

On the other hand my father existed for five weeks because of a feeding tube, and forced air. There was no living will. My mother, his spouse of 50 plus years had to face making the decision whether to let him die, or not. To say she went through an emotional hell would be an understatement. Burying a beloved family member is emotionally hard. Being the cause of their death, and knowing that you will have to live with it is gut wrenching.

My father revived, but was in agony. After a few weeks he died by starving. Mother said later that it would have been more humaine to let him die on the machine. She also faced a $128,000 medical bill because a decision could not be made.

After seeing her pain, it prompted me to have a Living Will. I have seen both sides, yet I don't have an answer. In my humble opinion, not having a Living Will that allows your family know your wishes is cruel.

Would a Living Will have helped Mrs. Schiavo? Who knows. Both rely on a doctor's opinion.

7:11 PM, March 23, 2005  
Blogger Esther said...

I think having a living will definitely would have helped Terri Schiavo. Certainly could have made her intentions clear.

Great post, Tom!

1:41 AM, March 24, 2005  
Blogger The Rambling Taoist said...

Gee Whiz! What is the world coming too! I read your blog because I almost always disagree with you. I say "almost" because, in this particular instance, I think you have written very eloquently and very well.

Hopefully, this won't become a pattern! I need to have at least one regular blog on my list in which I can go to and expect to read something that will make me gag.

7:51 PM, March 24, 2005  

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