Terri Schiavo’s legacy is a national debate

THE life and death of Terri Schiavo — intensely public, highly polarising and played out around the clock on the Internet and television — has become a touchstone in American culture.

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

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Published: Sun 3 Apr 2005, 9:55 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:10 PM

Rarely have the forces of politics, religion and medicine collided so spectacularly, and with such potential for lasting effect.

Schiavo, the profoundly incapacitated Florida woman whose family split over whether she would have preferred to live or die, forced Americans into a conversation about the end of life. Schiavo died on Thursday, nearly two weeks after her feeding tube was removed.

Her case raised questions about the proper role of government in private family decisions. But her legacy may be that she brought an intense dimension — the issue of death and dying — to the battle over what US President George W. Bush calls “the culture of life.”

Nearly 30 years after the parents of another brain-damaged woman, Karen Ann Quinlan, injected the phrase “right to die” into the lexicon as they fought to unplug her respirator, Schiavo’s case swung the pendulum in the other direction, pushing the debate toward what Wesley Smith, an author of books on bioethics, calls the “right to live.”

“This is the counterrevolution,” said Smith, who has spent more than a decade challenging what he regards as the liberal assumptions of most bioethicists. “For many years, I have been frustrated at how difficult it is to bring the starkness of these issues into a bright public discussion. Schiavo did it.”

Experts say that unlike the Quinlan case, which established the concept that families can prevail over the state in end-of-life decisions, the Schiavo case created no major legal precedents. But it could well lead to new laws. Already, some states are considering more restrictive end-of-life measures, like preventing the withdrawal of a feeding tube without explicit written directions.

That troubles some medical ethicists and doctors.

“I am concerned about the erosion of a very hard-won multiple-decade process of agreeing that these decisions belong inside families,” said Dr. Diane Meier, an expert in end-of-life care at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “We’ve always said that autonomy and self-determination does not trump the infinite value of an individual life, that people have the right to control what is done to their own body. I think that is at risk.”

For social conservatives, who argue that sanctity of life trumps quality of life, Schiavo came along at the right place and time, at a moment of their ascendancy in American politics.

The US presidential election last November kept Bush in the White House and gave Republicans firmer control of Congress, particularly in the Senate, where conservatives gained several crucial seats, moving the Republican Party noticeably to the right.

Among those conservative freshmen is Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida, who prodded Congress to pass a bill allowing a federal court to review the Schiavo case, never dreaming that it would spawn a backlash. Since the law was passed, public opinion polls have consistently shown that an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed the congressional action.

“I’m still perplexed,” Martinez said, adding that he would press for a bill to let federal courts review all cases like Schiavo’s. “I am amazed by the attention and the passions that have been aroused by this. It may be one of those issues that touches families, that transcends the cultural wars.”

Others say that far from transcending the cultural wars, Schiavo’s case landed smack in the middle of them.

“It may be that her legacy is to set off an ongoing debate in American public policy about the sanctity of life and how we are going as a society to make decisions about when life begins, when it ends and what protections it ought to have,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a conservative group.

Bauer said he regarded Schiavo’s death as “the forcible taking of an innocent human life.”

That same language percolates through other debates that involve clashes of medicine, politics and religion, like the fights over abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

Schiavo managed to bring these ideas home in a deeply personal way. Her history had a captivating narrative arc and a compelling cast of characters. The patient: Schiavo, who lingered for 15 years in what doctors describe as a “persistent vegetative state.”

The husband: Michael, painted by some as a villainous adulterer as he sought to have her feeding tube withdrawn. And the parents: Robert and Mary Schindler, determined to keep their daughter alive.

As the drama unfolded, anyone with a television set could watch Schiavo on videotape and make a judgment.

“The closest thing to it, but not quite as poignant, are the debates about stem cell research,” said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council, who became familiar with conservative politics when he worked for the Christian Coalition. “But they deal with diseases that touch upon every family, but not a single individual. This brought everything together in a way that made this issue very real to most Americans.”

Many Americans had probably never heard of Terri Schiavo until two weeks ago, though she was well known in Florida and had made national news before. Lawmakers interrupted their Easter recess to rush back to Capitol Hill for a midnight vote on the bill that gave the Schindlers the right to go to federal court, and the president flew back from Texas to sign it. The move exposed fissures among Republicans, and also fuelled conservatives’ anger over what they regarded as an activist judiciary.

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