It appears we’ve reached the pivotal moment in the Terri Schiavo case, and it also appears our politicians, our senators and congressmen, might benefit from some observations.
In America today all big stories have three dimensions: a legal angle, a public-relations angle and a political angle. In the Schiavo case some of our politicians seem not to be fully appreciating the second and third. This is odd.
Here’s both a political and a public-relations reality: The Republican Party controls the Senate, the House and the White House. The Republicans are in charge. They have the power. If they can’t save this woman’s life, they will face a reckoning from a sizable portion of their own base. And they will of course deserve it.
This should concentrate their minds.
So should this: America is watching. As the deadline for removal of Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube approaches, the story has broken through as never before in the media.
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There is a passionate, highly motivated and sincere group of voters and activists who care deeply about whether Terri Schiavo is allowed to live. Their reasoning, ultimately, is this: Be on the side of life. They remind me of what Winston Churchill said once when he became home secretary in charge of England’s prisons. He was seated at dinner with a jabbery lady who said that if she were ever given a life sentence she’d rather die than serve it. He reared back. No, he said, always choose life! “Death’s the only thing you can’t get out of!”
Just so. Life is full of surprise and lightning-like lurches. The person in a coma today wakes up tomorrow and says, “Is that you, mom?” Life is unknowable. Always give it a chance to shake your soul and upend reality.
The supporters of Terri Schiavo’s right to continue living have fought for her heroically, through the courts and through the legislatures. They’re still fighting. They really mean it. And they have memories.
On the other side of this debate, one would assume there is an equally well organized and passionate group of organizations deeply committed to removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. But that’s not true. There’s just about no one on the other side. Or rather there is one person, a disaffected husband who insists Terri once told him she didn’t want to be kept alive by extraordinary measures.
He has fought the battle to kill her with a determination that at this point seems not single-minded or passionate but strange. His former wife’s parents and family are eager to care for her and do care for her, every day. He doesn’t have to do a thing. His wife is not kept alive by extraordinary measures—she breathes on her own, is not on a respirator. All she needs to continue existing—and to continue being alive so that life can produce whatever miracle it may produce—is a feeding tube.
It doesn’t seem a lot.
So politically this is a struggle between many serious people who really mean it and one, just one, strange-o. And the few bearded and depressed-looking academics he’s drawn to his side.
It is not at all in the political interests of senators and congressmen to earn the wrath of the pro-Schiavo group and the gratitude of the anti-Schiavo husband, by doing nothing.
So let me write a sentence I never thought I’d write: Politicians, please, think of yourselves! Move to help Terri Schiavo, and no one will be mad at you, and you’ll keep a human being alive. Do nothing and you reap bitterness and help someone die.
This isn’t hard, is it?
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At the heart of the case at this point is a question: Is Terri Schiavo brain-dead? That is, is remedy, healing, physiologically impossible?
No. Oddly enough anyone who sees the film and tape of her can see that her brain tells her lungs to breathe, that she can open her eyes, that she seems to respond at times and to some degree to her family. She can laugh. (I heard it this morning on the news. It’s a childlike chuckle.) In the language of computers she appears not to be a broken hard drive but a computer in deep hibernation. She looks like one of those coma cases that wind up in the news because the patient, for no clear reason, snaps to and returns to life and says, “Is it 1983? Is there still McDonald’s? Can I have a burger?”
Again, life is mysterious. Medicine is full of happenings and events that leave brilliant doctors scratching their heads.
But in the end, it comes down to this: Why kill her? What is gained? What is good about it? Ronald Reagan used to say, in the early days of the abortion debate, when people would argue that the fetus may not really be a person, he’d say, “Well, if you come across a paper bag in the gutter and it seems something’s in it and you don’t know if it’s alive, you don’t kick it, do you?” No, you don’t.
So Congress: don’t kick it. Let her live. Hard cases make bad law, but let her live. Precedents can begin to cascade, special pleas can become a flood, but let her live. Because she’s human, and you’re human.
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A final note to the Republican leadership in the House and Senate: You have to pull out all the stops. You have to run over your chairmen if they’re being obstructionist for this niggling reason and that. Run over their egos, run past their fatigue. You have to win on this. If you don’t, you can’t imagine how much you’re going to lose. And from people who have faith in you.
Bill Frist and Tom DeLay and Jim Sensenbrenner and Denny Hastert and all the rest would be better off risking looking ridiculous and flying down to Florida, standing outside Terri Schiavo’s room and physically restraining the poor harassed staff who may be told soon to remove her feeding tube, than standing by in Washington, helpless and tied in legislative knots, and doing nothing.
Issue whatever subpoena, call whatever witnesses, pass whatever emergency bill, but don’t let this woman die.