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As Long as We Remember...

April 6, 2005

Terri Schiavo and the Culture of Life

Tony Soltero

Sun Hudson was his mother Wanda's pride and joy. Though the infant Texan boy had been born with severe deformities, his mother showered him with every ounce of love, caring, and nurturing she could muster, doing everything she could to keep him alive.

When her hospital decided to cut off the breathing tube that kept Sun alive, she objected ferociously. But she lost that battle. On March 15, 2005, the breathing tube was removed from Sun, and the six-month-old baby quietly passed away, in the arms of his heartbroken mother.

There were no congressional interventions on Sun Hudson's behalf. No Presidents interrupting their vacations and hopping on planes to sign emergency legislation. No round-the-clock national media coverage demanding that Wanda's wishes for her son be respected. No pundits pontificating about this egregious violation of Culture of Life. No protest marches by the so-called right-to-lifers outside the hospital. No fundraisers to cover for the costs of Sun's care. Nope, none of that.

You see, the state of Texas has a law on the books that permits hospitals to withdraw life-supporting care from patients who are unable to pay, even if their families wish to keep them alive; a law that, incidentally, was enacted in 1999 and signed by none other than then-Governor George W. Bush. You read that right; the same guy who aches and declaims about the sacredness of human life at all stages. As long as one can afford the treatments, that is.

But this should hardly be shocking to anybody who's paying attention to the Republicans and their fundamentalist base over the last few years. The tragedy of the Terri Schiavo experience has been brutal and painful for the principals involved, but, for the rest of the nation, it has proven to be an instructive lesson in where the Republican reactionaries are coming from. This whole sad episode has shed a hard, bright light upon a perfect storm of right-wing hypocrisies.

The phrase we keep hearing in our media is the one that President Bush and Rep. Tom DeLay (R., TX) keep repeating: that we should "err on the side of life." This demands an examination, of course, into how faithfully these men have applied this philosophy over their tenure as public figures.

When Governor Bush had a chance to carefully review the cases of death-row prisoners in Texas prior to sending them to the gallows, he'd gleefully sign the execution orders without any deliberation, without ever paying attention to any hints of new evidence that might exonerate the inmates. He openly mocked the convicts, notably born-again Christian Karla Faye Tucker. He executed the mentally incompetent. His actions may or may not have been in error - but certainly not on the side of life.

When United Nations' inspectors were busily searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Bush, with the assent of a timid Congress, prematurely cut short their probe and decided to launch a pre-emptive war on the country instead. A hundred thousand American and Iraqi deaths later, we have found out what the inspectors could have told us if they'd simply been allowed to finish their jobs: Iraq didn't have any armaments worth worrying about. Was this "erring on the side of life?"

When our legislators come up with the annual budget, the programs the President and the Republicans most enthusiastically try to slash include Medicaid, SSI, and pre-natal care programs for the poor, programs that sustain medical care and life for millions of Americans who otherwise would die. Terri Schiavo (and thousands like her, but without the publicity) would not be alive today without Medicaid - or, for that matter, without the funding provided by a malpractice award, another popular GOP boogeyman.

So when this administration and its mouthpieces wax poetic about the "culture of life," it is well worth noting that their commitment to this precept is based simply on political expediency.

An internal GOP memo gushed about the opportunities to make hay out of this affair. The Republicans thought they could galvanize their base by exploiting the Schiavo situation, but their track record in "defending life" is so poor in most other areas that only the eternally gullible buy into their pious proclamations.

Polls have shown that most Americans recognize this stunt for what it is - grandstanding. And the principals in this whole sordid affair - Rep. DeLay, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (TN) (a doctor of such skill that he can perform an instant diagnosis by watching a videotape) have now quietly skulked away into the background, as the public backlash from both the left (because of the government's intervention) and the right (for not following through on their pronouncements) has struck. Funny, they always claim they're not poll-driven.

The right might have more credibility if it had pushed for Sun Hudson, and the thousands of Americans who would LOVE to have feeding tubes or ventilators to stay alive but can't afford them, as intensely as it has for Terri Schiavo. If they had pushed for a real Medicare bill (read: sustaining life for seniors), not the drug-company giveaway passed a year and a half ago. If they would stand and defend Medicaid (read: sustaining life for the poor). But they haven't done any of that, because none of this has been about Terri Schiavo or any "culture of life."

So what's it about, then?

It's about demonizing the judiciary. Congress knew that the judges involved (appointed by both parties) would strike down their special law - but by forcing the issue, they can now bleat about a supposed "out-of-control" judiciary (as if upholding the law of the land was "out-of-control") for the purposes of riling up their fundamentalist base.

The concepts of democracy, checks and balances, and separation of powers mea n nothing to these people - and they're the engine that drives the Republican Party today. This is about the coming judicial battles, as President Bush tries to install the most reactionary fundamentalists on the bench - judges who differ from the Taliban only in their choice of headgear.

And it is worth noting that a decade and a half ago, Representative DeLay was faced with a choice very similar to that which Michael Schiavo confronted. The congressman's father was critically ill, and being kept alive only by a ventilator.

Mr. DeLay consulted with his family and, together, they made a decision.

They pulled the plug.

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