Friday, March 18, 2005
It appears we've reached the pivotal moment in the Terri Schiavo case, and it
also appears our politicians, our senators and congressmen, might benefit from
In America today all big stories have three dimensions: a legal angle, a
public-relations angle and a political angle. In the Schiavo case some of our
politicians seem not to be fully appreciating the second and third. This is odd.
Here's both a political and a public-relations reality: The Republican Party
controls the Senate, the House and the White House. The Republicans are in
charge. They have the power. If they can't save this woman's life, they will
face a reckoning from a sizable portion of their own base. And they will of
course deserve it.
This should concentrate their minds.
So should this: America is watching. As the deadline for removal of Mrs.
Schiavo's feeding tube approaches, the story has broken through as never before
in the media.
There is a passionate, highly motivated and sincere group of voters and
activists who care deeply about whether Terri Schiavo is allowed to live. Their
reasoning, ultimately, is this: Be on the side of life. They remind me of what
Winston Churchill said once when he became home secretary in charge of England's
prisons. He was seated at dinner with a jabbery lady who said that if she were
ever given a life sentence she'd rather die than serve it. He reared back. No,
he said, always choose life! "Death's the only thing you can't get out of!"
Just so. Life is full of surprise and lightning-like lurches. The person in a
coma today wakes up tomorrow and says, "Is that you, mom?" Life is unknowable.
Always give it a chance to shake your soul and upend reality.
The supporters of Terri Schiavo's right to continue living have fought for
her heroically, through the courts and through the legislatures. They're still
fighting. They really mean it. And they have memories.
On the other side of this debate, one would assume there is an equally well
organized and passionate group of organizations deeply committed to removing
Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. But that's not true. There's just about no one on
the other side. Or rather there is one person, a disaffected husband who insists
Terri once told him she didn't want to be kept alive by extraordinary measures.
He has fought the battle to kill her with a determination that at this point
seems not single-minded or passionate but strange. His former wife's parents and
family are eager to care for her and do care for her, every day. He doesn't have
to do a thing. His wife is not kept alive by extraordinary measures--she
breathes on her own, is not on a respirator. All she needs to continue
existing--and to continue being alive so that life can produce whatever miracle
it may produce--is a feeding tube.
It doesn't seem a lot.
So politically this is a struggle between many serious people who really mean
it and one, just one, strange-o. And the few bearded and depressed-looking
academics he's drawn to his side.
It is not at all in the political interests of senators and congressmen to
earn the wrath of the pro-Schiavo group and the gratitude of the anti-Schiavo
husband, by doing nothing.
So let me write a sentence I never thought I'd write: Politicians, please,
think of yourselves! Move to help Terri Schiavo, and no one will be mad at you,
and you'll keep a human being alive. Do nothing and you reap bitterness and help
This isn't hard, is it?
At the heart of the case at this point is a question: Is Terri Schiavo
brain-dead? That is, is remedy, healing, physiologically impossible?
No. Oddly enough anyone who sees the film and tape of her can see that her
brain tells her lungs to breathe, that she can open her eyes, that she seems to
respond at times and to some degree to her family. She can laugh. (I heard it
this morning on the news. It's a childlike chuckle.) In the language of
computers she appears not to be a broken hard drive but a computer in deep
hibernation. She looks like one of those coma cases that wind up in the news
because the patient, for no clear reason, snaps to and returns to life and says,
"Is it 1983? Is there still McDonald's? Can I have a burger?"
Again, life is mysterious. Medicine is full of happenings and events that
leave brilliant doctors scratching their heads.
But in the end, it comes down to this: Why kill her? What is gained? What is
good about it? Ronald Reagan used to say, in the early days of the abortion
debate, when people would argue that the fetus may not really be a person, he'd
say, "Well, if you come across a paper bag in the gutter and it seems
something's in it and you don't know if it's alive, you don't kick it, do you?"
No, you don't.
So Congress: don't kick it. Let her live. Hard cases make bad law, but let
her live. Precedents can begin to cascade, special pleas can become a flood, but
let her live. Because she's human, and you're human.
A final note to the Republican leadership in the House and Senate: You have
to pull out all the stops. You have to run over your chairmen if they're being
obstructionist for this niggling reason and that. Run over their egos, run past
their fatigue. You have to win on this. If you don't, you can't imagine how much
you're going to lose. And from people who have faith in you.
Bill Frist and Tom DeLay and Jim Sensenbrenner and Denny Hastert and all the
rest would be better off risking looking ridiculous and flying down to Florida,
standing outside Terri Schiavo's room and physically restraining the poor
harassed staff who may be told soon to remove her feeding tube, than standing by
in Washington, helpless and tied in legislative knots, and doing nothing.
Issue whatever subpoena, call whatever witnesses, pass whatever emergency
bill, but don't let this woman die.
Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street
Journal and author of "A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag" (Wall Street Journal
Books/Simon & Schuster), a collection of post-Sept. 11 columns, which you can
buy from the OpinionJournal bookstore. Her column appears Thursdays.
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