Republicans' Schiavo Scheme Flopping,
But Dangers to Democracy Remain
March 25, 2005
By Carolyn Winter and Roger Bybee
better moment to appease the fundamentalist Right than a miraculous
midnight maneuver by Congress and President Bush on Palm Sunday
to resurrect Terri Schiavo?
The timing could not have been more melodramatic, but the cynical
spectacular produced by "Culture of Life" high priests
Tom DeLay and George W. Bush is not getting the raves that were
anticipated. Polling by Pew Research shows Americans opposed to
the Congressional incursion on the courts by a 2-1 margin, hardly
the result sought by the Right.
Tom DeLay literally saw the Schiavo case as a gift from God just
at a moment when the backlash against DeLay's ethical lapses and
heavy-handed domination of the House is growing.
"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
informed a Family Research Council event. "This is exactly the issue
that is going on in America, of attacks against the conservative
movement, against me and against many others," he thundered.
Meanwhile, a memo by Republican strategists displayed the chillingly
partisan motives behind the Republicans' sudden abandonment of states'
rights, embrace of federal power, and prayers for long-hated "judicial
"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will
be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue,"
the memo gloated, later causing red faces on the Right when it got
leaked to the media.
But the Republicans' momentary setbacks in public opinion and
from federal appeals courts should not deflect our attention from
the context of the rightist attempt to trample the separation of
powers. The Republicans' continuing campaign to construct a one-party
state - with only a fašade of democracy - is by far the most troubling
political aspect of the Schiavo drama.
Following the Medicare drug bill last year, the Palm Sunday farce
marked the second time that momentous matters were decided by Congress
in the middle of the night with little time for preparation, opportunistic
bending of rules, and with maximum emphasis on rightist ideology
(and/or theology.) The rules in Congress are increasingly being
used by Republicans to undermine any voice for the minority party
and any respect for due process.
According to a Boston Globe study, about 85% of House bills
in the last session were handled under "emergency" rules
that allowed the Republican majority to prohibit the Democrats from
putting forth amendments, and thus sparing GOP congressmen from
votes that would have clarified their loyalties to corporate donors.
However, the Democrats moan and groan surprisingly little, and
basically acquiesce to a situation becoming closer to a one-party
state than perhaps at any time in our history. Limits on class-action
suits, a major defeat for consumer rights, were passed with considerable
Democratic support. Even the many questions still surrounding the
legitimacy of vote-counting in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections
are rarely raised by mainstream Democratic leaders.
Without loud and consistent Democratic dissent, the Right feels
free to stage new incursions on democratic rule. How can the Senate
credibly vote to invalidate the Florida courts with only three senators
present? If Bush and the forces of the Right continue to appoint
extremely ideological federal judges, does every case wind up being
appealed endlessly until it can be conclusively decided by an ideologically
conservative judge? As of now, more than 20 judges have heard this
case. Will it only end when one judge finally issues a ruling acceptable
to the Right?
Where are all the constitutionalists who are devoted to the separation
of powers and celebrate local control? One Republican leader declared
that the constitutional basis of the Schiavo case was the guarantee
of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" unless
there has been "due process." Yet only a few Democrats
have stood up and pointed out that this is exactly what has happened
in the last seven years in the Florida courts.
What is truly amazing has been how little effort has been expended
by the major media (especially cable TV news) to create a realistic
context for this discussion. One would think from much of the coverage
that the Schiavo case was unique and that other similar circumstances
were not happening many times a day around this country. What would
happen to the health care system of this country if every similar
case was artificially supported for over 15 years?
As Daniel Schorr noted on NPR, Terri Schiavo is being supported
by Medicaid and the award from a malpractice suit. Both sources
of support are under fierce attack by the very same people who are
so adamant about keeping Ms. Schiavo alive. So what about the right
of poor people for dialysis or other necessary treatments that they
Most of us who feel that Ms. Schiavo should be allowed to die
with dignity would not be troubled if the courts had ruled against
that position. But what is making us lose sleep is the loss of checks
to the growing power of the right wing in this country. As the polls
have shown, this is not the will of the people, as an overwhelming
majority agree with the courts. So how does Congress justify overturning
the state courts, including the Florida Supreme Court, and placing
this case in the federal courts that the right-wing is doing its
best to completely control?
The major media played totally into the hands of the Right by
not representing any of the complexities of the case, e.g., probably
a quarter of a million people per year have similar or related decisions
made to limit artificial life support. What about them? The media
let the Republicans totally frame the issues and filled almost all
the talking-head slots with ardent right-wingers. The Democrats
acquiesced by going on the defensive. Very little consistent attention
is being paid to the validity of Congress intervening in this issue,
especially in the middle of the night and with a disproportionate
number of Republicans voting and using rules for non-controversial
issues in the Senate.
Further, cable news in particular uncritically handled the Schindler
family's understandable but clearly incorrect beliefs about the
possibility of Ms. Schiavo's improvement. Their claims were run
uncontested, often as if there were competing, equally valid medical
opinions regarding Ms. Schiavo's condition by the medical experts
who had actually examined her. To back up this view, the media offered
a handful of doctors who support Right ideology, like Sen. Bill
Frist who felt qualified to offer a cheery prognosis based on a
five-year-old video. "We're making a decision to pull a tube this
week without a clear-cut diagnosis, or what in my mind was a clear-cut
diagnosis," Frist proclaimed like a faith healer with remarkable
powers to treat patients from afar.
From time to time, the media occasionally balanced their coverage
with mainstream doctors who all gave similar assessments that Ms.
Schiavo could not hope to advance from her current "persistent
Yet, a minute later, news shows would have the Schindler family
and their supporters back again to maintain that she was actually
responsive and showed emotion. A video made by the Schindler family
and edited to convey an impression of potential vitality was incessantly
aired. While the medical community seems overwhelmingly convinced
about the utter incapacity of Ms. Schiavo to improve, this fact
was buried under a shrill, frantic chorus of contentions that with
therapy she can improve and might even be able to talk.
The media also did a very poor job of contrasting the consequences
of keeping people semi-comatose alive while $15 billion in funds
for Medicaid and other health programs is set for slashing by Tom
DeLay and Co. Little mention was made of the annual death toll stemming
from lack of health insurance, estimated at 18,000 Americans per
year by the Institute of Medicine.
Thus far, the major media responded to the issue as framed in
the Republican playbook, and largely neglected such thorny issues
as the ability of technology to prolong life, sometimes indefinitely,
after the quality of life is gone.
Despite the deplorable, emotion-drenched and fact-deprived media
coverage, the vast majority of Americans concluded, apparently from
their own family experiences, that Congress has no place intruding
from long distance into intimate, anguished life-and-death decisions.
For progressives, the wisdom of ordinary Americans in the face of
this propaganda barrage ought to be encouraging.
At the same time, the Schiavo case should urgently remind us of
that the Right is still intent on tearing down fundamental pillars
Carolyn Winter and Roger Bybee are progressive activists and
writers living in Milwaukee, Wis. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.