Life after Schiavo

I’ve been pretty outspoken here and on my site about the Schiavo case, which is nominally over. Allow me one last post that I’m sure will get attacked by Joe’s new coalition of states-rights libs and cons.

If we’re judging social policy by polls, can we please get some out-of-the-box pollster to test public knowledge of the key facts in the Schiavo case? Most people will know she was judged to be in PVS and the courts tended to side with her husband. But did they know her husband had a common-law wife and children for the better part of the last decade? Did they know the malpractice settlement she received – and that Michael stood to inherit it if she expired? The money is gone now, but his actions when those three-quarters of a million were still in the bank cast strong doubt on his fitness as guardian. On those last two questions, I doubt you’d find more than 2 of 5 people who knew the facts. And they are utterly relevant to what should have been the central question in the case: Is Michael fit to be his wife’s guardian?

When did it become holy writ for conservatives to unquestionably back states’ rights and local control? States are in charge of many policy issues because we decided, being closer to the action, they have a better grasp of the issues. And we see innovative policies come out of 50 states more often than one federal government. But clearly states do stupid things occasionally and, for lack of a better term, f*ck up a lot of decisions. The harm that can do isn’t trivial, but there’s opportunity for redress…unless the state gets you killed. I don’t have to convince death-penalty opponents that death-row convicts don’t exactly get great legal resources – there was that one Texas governor who came under harsh criticism for the number of executions under his watch… So why is Terri Schiavo any different? It’s a case in which one woman’s life depends on the testimony of one man and his relatives. If the state of Florida messed it up from the start, locking in subsequent judges with narrow technical rulings – and I think that’s highly plausible – I want the feds to step in and give it a once-over. (And this is Florida we’re talking about.) Justice should be our highest goal, not stepping on toes. Too many anti-government conservatives have forgotten that. Watching the states-rights’ argument in this case was like watching “Mississippi Burning.”

There’s been a lot of discussion in the right-wing split over the Schiavo case, but until Jesse Jackson stepped in with the Schindlers, little thought of how this might split the left, between its life-affirming big(ger) government supporters and its liberty-loving “out of my business” side. As James Taranto noted, prominent liberals – Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader and Sen. Tom Harkin – spoke for Terri Schiavo’s life, as did 47 of 100 House Democrats who voted on the measure. The leader of the Senate Democrats, Harry Reid, is an affirmed pro-lifer. And we’ve all heard Hillary Clinton’s (mostly symbolic) reaching out to neglected pro-life Democrats. Since the average Democrat became richer and more urban, the party has taken a sharp veer to the libertarian side on social issues – drugs, abortion, sexual liberation. (I happen to prefer their new relaxed stance on the first.) But the less fashionable, more down-home Democrats are still there – the kind who, 90 years ago, would have gone to hear William Jennings Bryan give a barn-burnin’ speech.

I hope one result of the Schiavo case, besides spurring more people to create wills, is for all of us (and not least our representatives) to realize that our principles need to be prioritized, and occasionally your commitment to one thing will be superseded by your commitment to another – for conservatives in this case, fair trial proceeding before states’ rights because life in the most literal sense is at stake.



UPDATE: The senior psychiatrist at Mass. General shares his experience with PVS patients, and why death by dehydration for them is far from “peaceful,” as Michael Schiavo’s lawyer put it:

For several years I had the honor to be the physician for a neuropsychiatric hospital unit which served seriously disabled people. Some of them appeared to be similar in condition to Terri. The nursing staff worked hard to keep these patients alive, comfortable, and stimulated by the environment to the maximal extent possible. They typically had guardians, and their instructions were followed, including the occasional refusal to employ tube feeding. But no one on the treatment team would have dreamed of acceding to a guardian’s demand to withhold water. We would not have done it. And no judge would order it.

As he notes, PVS is a subjective, clinical diagnosis “and should not be used in life and death decisions.” Supporters of pulling the tube must know, if they and the judge are wrong, there’s no going back for Terri. But this is what we get when quality of life becomes the deciding factor for human status.

Author: GREG PIPER

I'm a tech journalist who's making a TV show about a college newspaper.

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