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Republicans' Schiavo Scheme Flopping, But Dangers to Democracy Remain

March 25, 2005
By Carolyn Winter and Roger Bybee

What 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 activism."

"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 can't afford?

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 vegetative state."

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 of democracy.

Carolyn Winter and Roger Bybee are progressive activists and writers living in Milwaukee, Wis. They can be reached at winterbybee@earthlink.net.

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