Saturday, March 26, 2005

Column 25 - (National) Terri Schiavo

Jim and I originally decided to write this month’s National columns on health care, and what the role of the government ought to be. This seems important, given that about half of all bankruptcies in 2001 were the result of medical problems and, surprisingly, most of those (more than three-quarters) who went bankrupt were covered by our current system of private health insurance at the start of the illness. Often, the bankrupting illness led to job loss and therefore a loss of health insurance. Studies have found that illness and medical bills contributed to at least 46.2 percent, but perhaps as many as 54.5 percent, of all bankruptcy filings.
Then, as I was thinking about the question of the appropriate role for the government in health care, the case of Terry Schiavo flared up again, this time with Congress bringing itself back from recess and the President interrupting his vacation to make this poor woman’s case a matter for passage of what amounts to a Bill of Attainder to prolong her life, notwithstanding the fact that Constitution specifically forbids such bills.
The position of the Republican administration and conservatives in general has been “less government is the best government,” and health care has been no exception to this. So why, now, are Republicans in Congress and the President rushing to bring the full weight of the government to bear on this case?
I really don’t think this effort is out of an excess of compassion for Ms Schiavo, her husband, or her parents. Rather, the Right and its allies among religious fundamentalists see the opportunity to make common cause in behalf of their agendas against reproductive choice and in behalf of portraying those of either party who disagree with them as anti-life, atheistic, and worse. Meanwhile Ms Schiavo’s brain stem continues to work her heart and lungs, her husband continues to attempt to carry out the wishes she expressed to him, and her parents continue to cling to the forlorn hope that their daughter may someday be restored to them, and that hope makes them unwilling tools for political and quasi-religious interests that care not one whit about their or their daughter’s suffering.
That ethical paragon, House Majority Leader Tom De Lay said "… no little judge sitting in a state district court in Florida is going to usurp the authority of Congress.” But under our Federalist system, in which private domestic matters are litigated in state, not federal courts, the rule of law has long provided that such domestic decisions are generally made by spouses, and not parents, elected officials, popular referendum, or the demands of religious radicals. To assert that a case that has had 19 court reviews (not counting the 2 so far this week) is disingenuous in the extreme.
This President, who as governor of Texas presided over 152 executions, and under whose presidency thousands of US military personnel and more thousands of civilians have died, now finds the life of one arguably brain-dead individual so crucial that he dramatically flies back to Washington to be awakened at 1 am to sign the bill that will prolong the case. The only thing missing was the flight suit and the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
Maybe it has something to do with the memo distributed to Republican senators by party leaders last week that called the Schiavo legislation “a great political issue” that would appeal to the party’s “core supporters,” and that could support defeating one of Florida’s Democratic senators next year.
Overall, this sanctimonious spectacle is part of a larger attempt by the political and so-called religious Right to move this country from its founding principle as governed by laws not men to being governed by a few men and their self-righteous agendas and not laws. Nothing could be more dangerous than to allow this subversion of everything America stands for.

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