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Most Americans bristle at GOP meddling in tragic Schiavo case

April 17, 2005 1:09 am

MODERN MEDICAL technology is a mixed blessing. It can create miracles, by keeping someone alive while doctors make repairs and the body heals itself. But it can also keep someone alive who has no reasonable chance of recovery and who might prefer to be allowed to die.

Terri Schiavo's legacy to us all is to make our feelings on the matter clear before we are unable to express them ourselves. That's because the generally accepted and legal practice of allowing the next-of-kin to make that determination, based on what the incapacitated person would have wanted, is under fire from the fringes of the political right--those who are certain they know what's best for all of us.

So put it in writing that you don't want to be kept alive by extraordinary means, if that's how you feel, and make sure it is done properly so there is no legal avenue to go against your wishes.

Issues don't get more emotional than the right to die. In such cases, as with abortion, people who feel a certain way are unlikely to be swayed. Nor can they understand how anyone can take the opposing side.

But unlike the abortion split, the divide over the right to die, based on polls taken as the Schiavo case culminated, isn't even close.

Various public opinion and news organizations found that Americans sided with Schiavo's husband, Michael, on his decision to have the feeding tube removed. As many as 87 percent of Americans would themselves not want to be kept alive if they were in Schiavo's condition, reports an ABC News/Washington Post poll. Broken down by religious preference, Michael Schiavo's decision garnered across-the-board assent, including by Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians.

A poll by CBS News poll also found that 82 percent of Americans objected to the congressional and presidential intrusions in the case.

Those efforts were headed by conservative Republicans who generally object to governmental meddling except when the topic, such as abortion or the right to die, makes meddling okay. In the Schiavo case, the legislation that the conservatives passed simply allowed Schiavo's misguided parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, to file new lawsuits in federal court, where their efforts had previously been rebuffed.

The legislation was rushed through both chambers without deliberation and was unlikely to have any impact on the case. In the end, it might seem that the legislation's only reason for being was for those who voted for it to appear compassionate to their constituents.

How out of touch with Americans can these politicians be? Did they not consider that the vast majority of Americans would oppose government intervention? Those lawmakers, as well as President Bush, should be held accountable for their arrogance and shortsightedness.

These are same public leaders who would be the first to remark that an ailing friend who died had gone to a "better place." Why would they not see that as a preferred alternative to living as a bedridden zombie year after year after year?

According to the CBS poll, 74 percent of Americans believe that elected officials became involved in order to advance a political agenda.

Let's hope the message gets through to Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, the General Assembly's poster boy for right-wing-agenda advancement. Marshall is threatening to introduce legislation next year that gives the state greater say-so in what happens in end-of-life cases, and next of kin less of a voice.

This is the same sort of thing he attempted following the Hugh Finn case. Finn died in a Manassas nursing home in 1998, eight days after removal of the feeding tube that had sustained him for 3 years. The difficult decision was made by Finn's wife, Michele, as it should have been.

Under Marshall's previous legislation, a spouse's wishes could be contested in the absence of a written directive by the incapacitated individual. That bill failed. Any new pursuit of such legislation would waste the taxpayers' time and money, and run counter to their convictions.

Marshall's conservative colleagues should talk him out of such nonsense this time around.

Basic to Marshall's argument is that someone, anyone, would "want" to live in the persistent vegetative state in which Terri Schiavo found herself for the past 16 years. I know I wouldn't want to exist that way, and I can't imagine why anyone would choose to. How many living wills out there do you suppose direct all possible extraordinary measures to be used indefinitely? Such self-importance is hard to imagine.

Some writers and commentators warned that "it could be you" in Terri Schiavo's situation, losing your source of food and water. Well, under similar circumstances, that's what I would want. I would consider it a selfish waste of money and hospice space to keep me alive.

If any legislation is necessary, it should be aimed at preventing the government from intruding on such wrenching decisions and limiting the process to a spouse or next immediate family member.

Del. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, one of the General Assembly's most outspoken conservatives, offered this reflection: "What we just went through was one of the most ghastly events in American history."

At least we agree on something.

To reach RICHARD AMRHINE: 540/374-5406

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