The politics of a life in the balance

Monday's congressional vote to send the Terri Schiavo case to a federal judge taps issues of dignity, legality - and strategy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the US House of Representatives voted 203 to 58 in the wee hours of Monday morning to hand the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman, over to a federal judge, the politics were unmistakable.

For members from socially conservative districts, questions over the propriety of Congress jumping in and passing a law of debatable constitutionality pale in the face of the stark reality: that Ms. Schiavo appeared certain to die without their intervention. It was a vote that went to the heart of supporting the "culture of life" that is central to the religious conservative ethos.

For President Bush, who rushed back to Washington to sign the bill minutes after Congress acted, the choice also appeared easy. Though he, too, has long spoken of the "culture of life," he has also disappointed religious conservatives on many occasions. He has not, for example, forcefully advocated for constitutional amendments banning abortion or gay marriage. On Schiavo, whose feeding tube was removed last Friday per the wishes of her husband, he could take the pro-life side and satisfy the socially conservative base of the Republican Party - activists crucial to the 2006 and 2008 elections - without much personal political downside.

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But members of Congress who voted in favor of intervening may face some political cost. An ABC News poll taken Sunday showed strong opposition to the law; 70 percent of those polled said Congress should not have gotten involved. And by a margin of 67 percent to 19 percent, most Americans think Congress acted more for political advantage than out of concern for Schiavo or for the principles involved.

For years, other polls have shown that in a case when a patient is in what physicians call a "persistent vegetative state," the spouse is the top choice for who decides whether to end life-sustaining measures.

Still, for those 208 members of Congress who voted to turn the Schiavo case over to federal court, the risk was probably calculated.

"Part of that calculation is that ... if you're going to irritate a bunch of people, you might as well not irritate the people who are otherwise with you on issues," says John Green, an expert on religious conservatives at the University of Akron in Ohio.

"The second part of the calculation is the degree of salience of the issue. It might be that among these large majorities that oppose what Congress is doing, many don't really care much about the issue."

Congress's sensitivity to charges of politicization came through in the Senate debate on Saturday, when majority leader Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee condemned a memo that had circulated among Republican members calling the Schiavo situation "a great political issue."

For Republicans representing conservative districts, the biggest concern may be a challenge during the primaries from the right wing of the party, and so a vote to intervene on Schiavo would be seen as preemptive. For the few Democrats who voted to intervene, their choice could be a protection during the general election.

What is clear is that the issue has dominated public attention, from the power corridors of Washington to dinner tables around the country. Polls show that many Americans have discussed their own desires with regard to life-sustaining measures - and in light of the Schiavo case, in which there was no living will, some are seeking legal guidance on drafting their own.

In Monitor interviews in Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., and New York City, those interviewed reflected the range of views evident in polling.

"It's a very difficult issue, but I'm willing to take the word of the medical community that she has no brain function other than instinctual," says Jonathan Laing, a senior editor at Barron's, in Chicago. "Though I count myself as a conservative, I think that the Republicans are pandering to the religious right on this."

Peter Bergeron, a general contractor working on his PhD in philosophy, also questions Congress's decision to intervene. He says he and his wife had already discussed the issues involved because of the movie "Million Dollar Baby."

"It raises questions like, 'What makes life worth living,'" says Mr. Bergeron, sitting in a Chicago Starbucks working on his dissertation. "In this situation, you have a woman who, as far as we can tell, isn't capable of entering into a relationship. What is the purpose of her life? It also raises questions about the role of technology. Were our lives intended to be lived in this kind of vegetative state? Fifty to 60 years ago, we weren't able to prolong life with technology. Just because we can, should we?"

He adds that he and his wife are now attending to the living-will issue "because of things in our own family history. Within the year we'll have something."

In New York City, Raoul Calleja said he believes in a person's right to die, but in this case, has doubts about the motives of Schiavo's husband: "Is it to end the suffering or was it for something else?"

New Yorker Merve Feurtado said that he supports the court's decision in this case. "I know the court order is what they should go by," he said. Removing the feeding tube is a difficult choice, but, he said,

"if she can't function properly, it might be more comfortable for her."

In Nashville, salesman John Majors says he was in favor of letting Schiavo pass away until he saw pictures of her that made her seem responsive. He is also hesitant about Congress getting involved in medical issues. "I think their [congressional] interests are questionable," he says.

David Reynolds, a commercial airline pilot, also in Nashville, also criticizes the federal government for getting involved. It has "better things to do," he says. As for Schiavo's husband, he adds, "I think he's carrying out her wishes. I think her parents are being selfish."

But Anthony Jones, a 52-year-old postal worker in Nashville, is siding with Schiavo's parents. "As long as there is a shred of hope, give her a chance to live," he said. At first, Mr. Jones did not have an opinion about Congress intervening, but as he spoke, he seemed not to object. "The right to live is so strong," he said.

In Mr. Jones's family, which holds a weekly Sunday-night devotional including his wife and three children, the issue came up this week - and the consensus, he says, was that they were hopeful for the parents and that the tube would be reinserted. "We all feel that she deserves a fighting chance," he says.

Anne Stein in Evanston, Ill., Amy Green in Nashville, Tenn., and Robert Tuttle in New York contributed to this report.

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