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Terri Schiavo

Where hope ends, farce begins in Washington


Is Terry Schiavo alive? Yes, I think she is. Is hers a life worth living? I don't think so. I wouldn't want it for myself, or to saddle my family with me in that condition. Others will say, however, that it is worth living, based on their religious or moral or perhaps even practical compass. Still others believe she's dead already, and it's only our latter-day medical technology that keeps us from seeing that.

But someone has to decide, because obviously she can't make the decision herself.

So we have laws.

The law in Florida (and in North Carolina, too) is that, since she left no written instructions, no living will, her spouse makes the decision. Why? Because if marriage (or civil union) means anything, it means that you've chosen one person in the world to act for you and with you throughout your life, to the end of your life; and the law respects your choice.

But the law also acts as a check against the chance that you've chosen badly and your spouse is not acting in your interests. In Schiavo's case, if there were any hope that she could improve, her husband would not have the power to stop others from feeding her. But there is no such hope--not in this world, anyway.

After 15 years in a persistent vegetative state, Schiavo remains able to breathe and take in nourishment, but otherwise her brain doesn't work. The competent medical testimony is unanimous and overwhelming that it never will.

Yet Congress steps in and says--well, it said absolutely nothing of value, did it? What a disgusting misuse of political station and power.

The first thing I did when I awoke Monday to the news that the House of Representatives, just after midnight, had voted 203-58 for the Senate's "private bill" (already gunned through an empty upper chamber by voice vote) was to check how the Triangle's three members voted.

Let's be proud of our two Triangle Democrats who had the guts to say no to this charade, Reps. David Price and Brad Miller. Let's be ashamed for our third Triangle Democrat, Rep. Bob Etheridge, who joined in the farce by voting yes.

I don't use the word disgusting much when talking about politics, though maybe I should. I reserve it for situations like this one, where politicians pretend to be supporting "a culture of life" when in fact they are just playing to the cameras--and the religious right wing.

Notice, please, that Congress did not say, although it certainly could have, that every citizen in a persistent vegetative state should be accorded any and all medical treatment needed to keep them alive indefinitely. That would imply a right to universal health care that, of course, the Republicans in Congress want nothing to do with.

Nor did Congress say that Michael Schiavo, the husband, was not the one to make the call, since that would imply some doubt about the vaunted state of marriage as trumpeted so frequently by the GOP. The Schiavos were separated at the time she collapsed back in 1990, and he has since fathered two children with a new partner. Congress could have said that in such circumstances, a patient's parents should have the right to continue feeding her over the spouse's objections. It didn't.

Actually, Congress could have said that anybody who wanted to continue feeding her could do so, once the husband walked away from it and regardless of the state of their marriage. But Congress did not say that either, nor did it declare that when the $1 million from the medical malpractice settlement in the Schiavo case runs out, as it will shortly, Medicaid should start paying the bills.

President Bush wants Medicaid spending cut, after all, as do most Republicans in both houses of Congress--though a handful in the Senate just joined with the Democrats to put the cuts off at least temporarily. (Our two Republican senators, Richard Burr and Liddy Dole? Pro-cuts.)

And you know, of course--because everyone is following this case--that George Bush, as governor, signed the law in Texas that lets hospitals there walk away from treating patients in hopeless cases just like this one, even if the spouse wants treatment continued. A hospital can discharge the patient, leaving it to the spouse to arrange (and pay for) continued feedings--or not.

Yet Bush "rushed" to Washington, interrupting his vacation, to sign the Schiavo bill, which promised nothing at all to Schiavo's parents except the chance to present their hopeless case to a federal court which, on Tuesday morning, determined that their case was, indeed, hopeless.

To summarize: I would not keep Terri Schiavo alive; others would; and we have no agreed-upon system of health care in the United States to determine such cases, mainly because we want to pretend that we're pro-life, but if it's expensive we don't want to pay for it.

In the absence of a federal law, then, the state laws decide; and Florida law says the husband makes the call, with judicial oversight. We've had 15 years of judicial oversight, and Terri Schiavo hasn't improved, and she isn't going to.

By pretending to do something for her while doing exactly nothing, Republicans like Bush and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Democrats-lite like Bob Etheridge, make a laughing stock of the law and themselves.

If there's any good news out of this, it's that the American public--which is, to repeat, paying close attention--gets it by large majorities.

We've given the Republicans enough rope to control Congress, the Supreme Court, the White House and everything else in Washington. With it, they are proceeding not to "save" Terri Schiavo but to hang themselves.

Anti-war, pro-basketball
Thinking about the Schiavo case, I picked up God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get it by Jim Wallis, in hopes it would illuminate such end-of-life cases. It doesn't, except to argue for a "consistent ethic of life" that would oppose capital punishment and, while allowing abortions as a choice, work to reduce unwanted pregnancies and strengthen family bonds. Presumably, it would also give us health care by right, not by ability to pay.

Wallis is the editor of Sojourners magazine and founder of Call to Renewal, an evangelical movement to assist the poor and attack material greed. He thinks it's time progressives reclaimed Christianity from the right wing by embracing the pro-justice, pro-peace message of Jesus. It's also a message that's pro-hope, Wallis says.

I think in Terri Schiavo's case, Wallis would say that her hope is in heaven. But there is also hope on earth, he believes, and the examples of Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Desmond Tutu, who stood against the South African forces of apartheid when doing so seemed not just futile but quite possibly fatal, are the proof of it--and proof of the power of hope.

Wallis's point: Hope isn't just a feeling. It's a decision that you make "with your eyes open to the reality of the world" to believe that a better world is possible--and to act on that belief whatever happens.

Thus, in Fayetteville on Saturday, I was at first disappointed in the turnout for the anti-war protest. But I was proud of the organizers. What if, given the cynicism of the times, they'd decided not to bother? If a big turnout had been assured, after all, we wouldn't have needed to protest half as much.

Like Wallis, I choose to believe we can change this country's attitude about war.

And, like Wallis, I see lessons in basketball, which is also about hope. He saw hope when good guys Tim Duncan and David Robinson ("the Admiral") led the San Antonio Spurs to victory over Kobe, Shaq and the L.A. Lakers. I saw it on Sunday when good guy Julius Hodge led N.C. State to victory over Connecticut.

You don't think change is possible? A month ago, Hodge's game was a mess, and the Wolfpack couldn't get out of its own way. Call it faith, hope or just practice, but game by game, they've transformed themselves into a pretty good team.

That's how political movements grow, too: step by step. Believe it. What's the alternative?

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