Never underestimate the Republican leaders in Washington. Whenever they appear to have exhausted the possibilities for cynical abuse of their authority, they can still inflict fresh outrages upon the nation.
By intervening in the sad dispute over Terri Schiavo between her husband and parents, the President and his Congressional allies have again revealed how little respect they have for any conservative or constitutional principle that doesn’t enhance their partisan power. In the name of defending human life, they have swept aside their own party’s traditional commitment to federalist respect for state law and to the separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary. In the name of equal protection under the law, they have departed from all traditional notions of legality.
Under civilized rules of debate-particularly over a matter as emotionally disturbing as this one-it is wise as well as polite to assume that everyone is arguing from a position of sincerity. The Schiavo case shows why those rules have become increasingly difficult to observe with a straight face.
While husband, parents and the brain-damaged woman herself are all deeply sympathetic figures, touching the deepest feelings of people on both sides of this vexing issue, that cannot be said for the politicians who claim to be advocating Ms. Schiavo’s cause. Their claim to the presumption of integrity has been voided by their own behavior.
In the Senate, Republicans circulated a “talking points” memo last week discussing Ms. Schiavo’s fate in terms that emphasized political opportunism. “This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue,” that memo explained. “This is a great political issue, because Senator [Ben] Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor [of the Schiavo bill] and this is a tough issue for Democrats.”
In the House, Majority Leader Tom DeLay rightly denounced that Senate memo as “disgusting.” But then a recording surfaced of remarks he’d delivered the other day to the Family Research Council, a powerful religious-right group that backs Republicans. There Mr. DeLay declared that the Almighty-working as always in the most mysterious ways-intended that Ms. Schiavo should relieve him of his mounting legal and ethical problems.
“One thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America,” Mr. DeLay explained, according to The New York Times. “This is exactly the issue that is going on in America, of attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others.” (He also mentioned “a huge, nationwide, concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in”-a category that clearly includes free golf vacations provided by casino lobbyists.)
And in the White House, George W. Bush rose from his bed the other night to sign the bill that provides a special privilege of federal legal appeal solely to Ms. Schiavo’s parents. For dramatic effect, he had rushed back to the capital from Texas. Perhaps he didn’t want to sign that awful legislation in his home state, thus recalling another law he signed as Governor in 1999.
That Texas statute permits hospitals to withdraw critical care in certain cases, despite the most vehement objections of family members. It established a bureaucratic process that can doom such patients even if, unlike Ms. Schiavo, they are fully capable of speech, thought and feeling. And under that statute, Ms. Schiavo’s husband Michael would have been designated as her “surrogate.” With her doctors concurring, Mr. Schiavo would have been able to discontinue her life support-without enduring federal interference.
When Mr. Bush signed that earlier bill, he was trying to save money for the Texas Hospitals Association, of course. Although he claims to honor a “culture of life” and would spare nothing in defense of innocent humanity, the harsher truth is that keeping people alive when their brains and organs can no longer function is extremely expensive. Presented with an easily exploited symbol like Ms. Schiavo, the President and his Congressional allies will pretend that money is no object. Yet they are hardly inclined to spend whatever might be needed to preserve every single human life for as long as possible.
Instead, the Republicans consistently prefer to relieve the suffering of their wealthiest constituents. Consider the new budget crafted by Mr. DeLay and his minions, in which they proposed to cut as much as $20 billion from Medicaid, the health-insurance program for the nation’s poorest citizens. The House budget could deprive more than a million children of basic medical care, while providing still more tax breaks for people whose luxuries include the most advanced medical attention on the planet.
These pious politicians don’t really care about defending human life. If they did, they would immediately enact and fund a national health-insurance program-to protect the 18,000 Americans who now die every year for lack of essential care.