Sunday :: Mar 20, 2005

The Silence of 'Good' Democrats

by larre

A stray remark in the comments section today raises the question of whether liberals should find fault with those Democratic politicians who are using the tragic Schiavo matter for their own personal or political purposes. I'd like to use that question as a way of introducing another question embedded in the Schiavo case: Is this an issue of principle, like Social Security, where the "Democratic Wing" of the Democratic Party should stand and fight?

Someone borrowed retired Iowa journalist Chuck ("Iowa Boy") Offenberger's by-line -- or maybe it was Chuck himself -- to suggest that it's "sanctimonious" when Democrats criticize Senator Tom Harkin for helping draft the Schiavo Relief Bill. Iowa Boy-Stroke-Two claimed in his comment:

"Senate Dems are trying to derail the House Republican's version of this legislation, which makes the Schiavo case not a one-shot law, but an all-encompassing no-right-to-die law."
As I wrote earlier today Harkin is one of the good guys and, generally, he's been a progressive senator. No one should mistake that.

But on the specific issue of the Shaivo Relief Act, for what it's worth The UK Guardian reports that all along "Harkin has favored broader legislation that would apply to similar situations beyond the Schiavo case." That sounds to me a lot like he favors "all-encompassing no-right-to-die" legislation.

As I also mentioned, there are at least three possible reasons one can imagine for Harkin's seeming willingness to make common cause with the thugs on the Right. One is that he is working a ruse, hoping to sucker the federal courts into declaring the Bill unconstitutional (just as a similar Florida state act was struck down as violating the Separation of Powers principle) so that the courts, and not Congress, take the heat from the Christian Right. That would be silly if Harkin believes it, for the evangelical Right long ago zoned in on changing Congress as the means for changing the courts. As the old psychiatry joke goes, "They may be crazy but they're not that stupid."

A second possibility is that Harkin hopes to appease -- or, to put it another way, he is intimidated by -- the evangelical Right. Senator Harkin surely has not publicly disavowed an intention to run for political office in 2008. What neither he nor we yet know is if he will run for reelection -- or higher office. His name has been raised in many circles when discussing presidential and vice-presidential possibilities in '08. Conceivably, too, he may decide to oppose Iowa Republican congressman Jim Nussle in next year's race for governor. Or, maybe he really does plan to sinmply finish out the three years remaining in his senate term.

Regardless, it is hard to consider Harkin's support for the Schiavo Relief Bill a cagey political move. Almost every opinion poll is showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans viscerally oppose what Congress is doing. According to ABC-Washington Post polling --

"87 percent of those surveyed said they would not want to be kept alive if in Terri Schiavo's condition, and 65 percent said a spouse should have the final say in what happens to a patient, as opposed to parents."
If anything, one would think the Democrats in opposition, if they have aspirations to return to governing, would be eager to make a principled stand on this issue as firmly as they should be doing with Social Security.

At the root of the Schiavo matter is the stark choice between the vision of religious zealots who would use the Federal Government to enforce their personal morality on everyone else and the broad sentiment of Americans who value the right of privacy as a constitutional lynchpin against Government tryranny. Republicans offer a vision of Government thugs interfering with the most intimate family decisions. Democrats, at least in the past, have promised freedom from Government intrusion in private lives.

The third reason I mentioned that might explain Senator Harkin's involvement is one that is personal to his family circumstances. When he was valiantly pushing the Americans with Disabilities Act he certainly made no secret of the fact that his interest was fueled by an intimate knowledge of the discrimination disabled employees face every day in the work place. I am in no position to know how deeply he is affected in the Schiavo matter by having a hearing-disabled family member, although it's hard to imagine that it compares with having a spouse in a permanent vegetative state for more than fifteen years.

None of these reasons, however, are convincing to someone who believes, as I do, that the Federal Government has no business crawling into Mrs. Schiavo's hospital bed or overruling the Florida court's long-settled and thoroughly-reviewed judicial decisions that she did not want her life prolonged in these circumstances. Even less can it justify the senator's desire -- if the UK Guardian is right -- to promote "broader legislation that would apply to similar situations."

If Iowa Boy-Stroke-Two wants to see real sanctimony, try reading the insane right-wing drivel (edit:possibly a satire) at A Certain Slant of Light. Here's a snippet (to be read only on an empty stomach):

"If Michael Schiavo, Terri Schindler-Schiavo's poor-excuse-of-a-husband, and his attorney, George Right-To-Die Felos, had their way, Terri's slow, agonizing death by dehydration and starvation, while in lock-down in a hospice room north of St. Petersburg, Florida, would be exclusively a 'private judicial matter,' well out of the purview of the mainstream media, the blogosphere, Florida's Department of Children and Families, the Vatican, and, most certainly, the United States Congress."
That's quite right, of course. Why, whatever could Michael Shiavo be thinking, wanting to keep his irretrievably vegetative wife's death a 'private' matter far away from the prying eyes of "the mainstream media."

I am sure there is some sort of point behind the vile sentiments Slant of Light expresses, but beyond a mindless Johnny-Got-His-Gun, Keep-That-Mass-of-Tissue-Alive-No-Matter-What philosophy, I can't tell you what it is.

The sanctimonious expressions in this sad affair, it seems to me, originate with the Right-Wing evangelicals who do not know Terri Schiavo, have not read the thousands of pages of testimony and hundreds of pages of reasoned court decisions, and who are oblivious to the existing provisions of Florida law under which the state courts rendered their considered judgments. As Michael Shiavo remarked to the St. Petersburg Times some time in the past day:

"To make comments that Terri would want to live, how do they know?" Schiavo said of the members of Congress who want to keep his wife alive.

"Have they ever met her?" Schiavo said. "What color are her eyes? What's her middle name? What's her favorite color? They don't have any clue who Terri is. They should all be ashamed of themselves."

The general Florida law actually is commendably thorough and precise in covering situations exactly like this. Section 765.401 of the Florida Statutes expressly sets out an order of priority for making health care decisions for an incapacitated person who has not executed a "living will" or appointed a health care surrogate:
(a) The judicially appointed guardian of the patient... "
(b) The patient's spouse;
(c) An adult child of the patient, or if the patient has more than one adult child, a majority of the adult children who are reasonably available for consultation;
(d) A parent of the patient... .
There are other possibilities lower down on the list. But the statute makes clear that a spouse enjoys the higher claim to priority of decision-making in such circumstances as Mrs. Schiavo is in.

Is it rational to give highest priority to the patient's wishes and those of her spouse? Or, is there some compelling reason the Right Wingers (and senators like Harkin) haven't yet articulated to explain why the desires of a parent (or congressman) should trump those of the patient or her spouse?

How can the evangelical Right Wing -- particularly when they don't even know 'the color of her eyes' -- justify having the Federal Government deny a patient's wishes and that of her spouse? Only by laying claim to a religious inspiration that it is the Government's duty everywhere and anytime to prevent the voluntary death of terminally ill patients who are in a persistent vegetative state. From that principle, it is only a short step to pushing Government agents up against our death beds to prevent un-assisted suicide... or assisted suicides, as in the Oregon statute now under attack in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Public popularlity is not the touchstone of constitutional rights, of course. Still, it is heartening to see polls suggesting that Americans in the context of the Schiavo matter still value their personal privacy and spontaneously resent the intrusion of Congress and the White House.

Grave illness and the death of a loved one are perhaps the most intimate of family crises, as Senator Harkin surely knows. It is nothing short of tyrranical for the federal Government to interfere.

Jefferson famously warned that Government tyrrany comes on tip-toe, aided by the silence of "people of good conscience." Senator Harkin has been a person of "good conscience" but his complicity in writing the Schiavo Relief Bill is not his finest hour.

larre :: 8:43 PM :: Comments (14) :: Digg It!