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"No Lie Is Too Low For Them": What the Terri Schiavo Affair Can Teach Us About Today's Right-Wing Zealots

Five years after the death of Terri Schiavo, right-wing opportunists continue to use her case to advance their political agenda.
 
 
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March 31st marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo. For that one month in 2005, the nation was transfixed, as the cable television news networks gathered en masse for a round-the-clock campout outside Terri's hospice, the public was sucked in by the portrayal of a defenseless victim about to have her feeding tubes pulled. The real story of a family's struggle with end of life decisions: Terri's husband Michael's efforts to facilitate her recovery since her collapse fifteen years earlier into a permanent vegetative state, the bitter estrangement of her husband and parents through this exhausting process, and the ultimate, wretching decision about what to do became the fodder of a fully-owned conservative enterprise who framed the events as "the struggle to keep Terri alive."

The media acted "like sharks attacking the wounded," Jon Eisenberg, an Oakland, California appellate lawyer who was one of Michael Schiavo's attorney's in the Terri Schiavo case, recently told AlterNet in an e-mail exchange. And the Religious Right acted out of "pure opportunism." It appeared, Eisenberg added, that they were concerned with much broader issues like attacking the fundamental constitutional right of control over your own body, known as "personal autonomy": "They cared not one whit about Terri Schiavo.

At the height of the Terri Schiavo affair, Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, attended a conference on "judicial activism" organized by Rick Scarborough, a Texas-based conservative and Christian evangelical leader. "I've covered the Religious Right for a long time, and even I was taken aback by the rhetoric," Boston recalled, via e-mail exchange with AlterNet. "I remember the crude attacks on Judge Stanley F. Birch Jr., a conservative jurist who incurred the wrath of the right-wing by rebuking Congress for its intervention in the case. In another speech, David C. Gibbs III, the attorney for Schiavo's parents, accused Michael Schiavo of murder."

Boston pointed out that statements by Gibbs and others that Terri Schiavo was not in a vegetative state were a stark example of how these groups simply made up their own reality, and how "no lie is too low for them if it serves their larger political agenda."

"During the Schiavo controversy, the Religious Right's operational theory was 'the ends justify the means' and 'any lie is acceptable if it helps us get what we want,'" Boston said. "They bent the truth like taffy and then had the unmitigated gall to pretend to be operating from a superior ethical stance. And when an autopsy later showed that Terri Schiavo's brain had shrunken to half the normal size and there never was hope for recovery, they simply lied about that as well.""

Substitute the Tea Party movement for the Religious Right and, for anyone that has followed the past year's debate over health care reform it might be déjà vu.

The Terri Schiavo case was a prime example of how the Republican Party -- aided and abetted by the Religious Right and a formidable array of right-wing foundations, think tanks, public relations firms and conservative legal entities -- used a deeply personal issue, and turned it into an attack on fundamental rights, and, failing that, an attack on the failure of government officials, aka "judicial activists," to stand up for life.

The GOP pulled out all the stops and created a public spectacle. Although the effort ultimately failed, and the Religious Right's reputation was at least temporarily sullied, earlier this year GOP leaders, (substitute Boehner for DeLay and McConnell for Frist), and its surrogates, this time in the form of Tea Partiers, resuscitated some of the same tactics, fear laced with maximum anger, in an attempt to kill health care reform.

Now, the anniversary of Terri Schiavo's death has prompted a flurry of activity: the Republican candidate leading in the Florida senate race has accused his opponent of being missing in action during the Schiavo case. And a five-year anniversary memorial service at a conservative Catholic university in Florida will feature one of America's most outspoken anti-abortion leaders. A a country music concert to benefit the The Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation is also planned.

Revisiting the Terri Schiavo story

In March 2005, after years of hearings and judicial decisions affirmed Michael Schiavo legal guardianship of Terri and his fealty to her end-of-life wishes. However, as the case approached its final stages, conservative political pros put on a full-court press. The Schindlers' brought in national anti-abortion leaders as spokespersons; Florida's Governor Jeb Bush intervened; right-wing foundations and Religious Right organizations funded the Schindler's legal case; and national Republican Party leaders rushed to grab the spotlight.

The case was no longer about the tragedy that had befallen Terri Schiavo, her husband, and her family; it had become a media circus and a political free-for-all. It brought some of the most unsavory and extreme elements of the anti-abortion movement (think Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry) into the living rooms of the American people via the cable television news networks. And it became political fodder for conservative Republicans who thought they could take advantage of the situation.

The story had begun nearly fifteen years earlier, when on February 25, 1990, Terri collapsed in the hallway of her Florida apartment. In his book, Using Terri: The Religious Right's Conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), author Jon B. Eisenberg described what happened next: "Her heart had stopped beating … Michael called 911. By the time paramedics arrived and restored Terri's heartbeat, her brain had been deprived of oxygen … for several minutes. The result was devastating brain damage, which caused Terri to slip into a coma." She was taken to Humana Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, "where doctors inserted a feeding tub. … Like St. Theresa of Avila, Terri eventually emerged from her coma, [although] she never regained consciousness. Instead, she settled into PVS -- medical shorthand for a persistent vegetative state."

The Orlando Sentinel's Mike Thomas recently provided this summation: "Terri was in a permanent vegetative state. Her husband wanted to remove a feeding tube keeping her alive, saying that they had earlier talked about how neither would want to be kept alive under such conditions. Her parents tried to block him and were backed by Gov. Jeb Bush, creating a political circus. A fringe group of supporters claimed Terri was aware of her surroundings, as evidenced by her tracking a balloon held in front of her face. The feeding tube was removed. An autopsy showed Terri's brain had dissolved into spinal fluid and there was no chance of any kind of recovery. In fact, she was blind."

Political Opportunists

As Thomas pointed out, right-to lifers and conservative politicians glommed onto the Schiavo case. They tossed medical expertise out the window. Terri's parents brought controversial anti-abortion leaders into the battle as official spokespersons. Their job was simple: win over public opinion by any means necessary, in case, by demonizing Terri's husband. They hounded him and hurled charges at him, including accusations of domestic violence, neglect, and that he was in it for the money; none of which were substantiated.

In September 2004, when Jon Eisenberg returned home from Florida, he was curious as to "who was funding" the Schindler's legal team. Eisenberg, assisted by his law firm's librarian, discovered that the "vast conservative conspiracy" was in full mid-decade splendor.

In Using Terri, Eisenberg wrote that he found "a money trail" that led "to virtually all of the lawyers for the Schindlers and Governor Jeb Bush," and to "more than a dozen religious Right organizations, from a handful of foundations" that were "quietly funding just about every ultraconservative cause on the political map." Eisenberg identified "seven foundations" that principally funded the legal operations, "fourteen think tanks" and a host of what he called "foot soldiers" ("the most visible people working on the front lines of the Schiavo litigation"), who received "money from the foundations to pursue their litigation, publication, activism, education and lobbying strategies."

One of the case's most bizarre sideshows involved Congress, the White House, and legislation known as "Terri's Law." As the date for removing Terri Schiavo's feeding tube approached, a memo -- later discovered to have been written by Brian H. Darling, legal counsel to Florida's Republican Senator Mel Martinez, who upon its discovery was forced to resign -- pointed out that "the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important moral issue. … This is a great political issue, because [Democratic] Senator [Bill] Nelson of Florida [who was up for reelection in 2006] has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."

Republicans clearly thought the Schiavo case would be of great political advantage. As Max Blumenthal pointed out in his book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party (Nation Books), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Senate Majority Leader Bill First (R-TN) "summoned Congress back from its spring recess to vote on a special bill to save Schiavo's life."

On March 21, 2005, after passing by unanimous consent in the Senate the day before, the House -- which needed a two-thirds majority because of its expedited procedure -- voted overwhelmingly (Democrats bailed out of the politically charged vote by staying away in droves) for a special bill that would advocate taking the case out of the Florida court and transferring it to a U.S. district court.

One of the more indelible images of that period was President George W. Bush jetting back to Washington from his Crawford, Texas ranch -- in his pajamas at 1:08 A.M. -- to sign the bill. "In cases like this one where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life," Bush said in a statement.

While Gov. Bush thanked the Congress for "its swift action," Michael Schiavo was outraged. "For Congress to come in and interfere in a personal family matter is outrageous." He warned that if they "can do it to me, they'll do it to every person in this country."

The ten days after Congress' intervention was taken up with a pitched battle over Terri Schiavo's feeding tube and whether is should be re-inserted: The Schindlers' lawyers -- a Christian right legal dream team -- appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and demonstrations and prayer vigils were held outside Hospice House Woodside. While their appeals were being considered and denied, the Schindlers went back to Jeb Bush, who, though challenged by Randall Terry to "be a man," ultimately decided that he could not "violate a court order."

In the end, just about all of the claims about Terri Schiavo's medical condition made by the Schindlers, their legal team, Religious right leaders, Gov. Jeb Bush and Congressional leaders, were undermined by Terri Schiavo's autopsy report.

Conservatives, however, were setting the table for the next set of battles; particularly over so-called judicial activists. Tom DeLay, who was already fighting for his own political life, threatened retribution against "the men responsible for this." Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn suggested that "some people" might "engage in violence" against judges who "are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public."

Celebrating or Using Terri?

"In the current debate over health care reform," Americans United's Rob Boston pointed out, "I see the Religious Right once again employing the same strategy: a barrage of lies, with no claim considered too outrageous to circulate. It started with Sarah Palin's 'death panels' and continues as the process winds down with a blast of increasingly desperate e-mails from groups screaming about socialism and government takeovers.

"The simple truth is this: The leadership of the Religious Right has become little more than a collection of toadies for the Republican Party, and their partisan masters have ordered them to stop the bill. Thus, no lie is out of bounds, no strategy is considered too base," Boston added.

As the fifth anniversary of Terri Schiavo's death approaches, her brother Bobby attached himself to a study published in the February issue of the New England Journal of Medicine related to brain activity in patients diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. The Catholic News Service recently reported that "researchers in England and Belgium found that five of 54 patients in states of persistent unconsciousness showed distinct patterns of brain activity on a brain imaging machine in response to questions that required a 'yes' or 'no' answer."

"These results show a small proportion of patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state have brain activation reflecting some awareness and cognition," the study concluded. "Careful clinical examination will result in reclassification of the state of consciousness in some of these patients."

Terri Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler said the latest New England Journal of Medicine study "underscores … why this dangerous and often mistaken PVS diagnosis needs to be stopped when being used as a standard to kill our most vulnerable."

Jon Eisenberg, had a more nuanced take. He told AlterNet that while "it seems fMRI could prove to be a valuable tool for either confirming or disproving a clinical diagnosis of PVS, … it's probably too soon to say for sure how reliable the technique will prove to be. But here's a tough question: If the only signs of awareness are in willful modulation of brain activity, what is to be done if the patient modulates his/her brain activity to give a "no" answer to the question "do you want to be kept alive?"

On the political front, the Orlando Sentinel's Mike Thomas recently reported that Marco Rubio, the young charismatic son of Cuban parents who is now the front-runner as the Republican Party candidate for the Senate -- running against Governor Charlie Christ -- recently accused Christ of having purposefully sat out the Schiavo affair five years ago. In a release issued in late February, the Rubio campaign "whack[ed] … Crist for not being tough on social issues like abortion," Thomas wrote.

The release specifically referenced the Schiavo case: "Crist also received criticism on the Terri Schiavo debate about where he really stood on a Congressional bill that would have let Terri's parents take their lawsuit to save her life to federal courts."

In Using Terri, Jon Eisenberg pointed out that the Religious right was "waging a state-to-state campaign to take away our personal autonomy rights -- in particular, the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment." One of the leaders of that battle is Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life.

On March 31, Ave Maria University, the Catholic college founded by former Domino's Pizza tycoon and conservative Catholic philanthropist Thomas Monaghan, will host an event it is calling a "National Mass for Terri's Day" on March 31. According to The Ave Herald ("serving the community of Ave Maria, Florida"), Father Frank Pavone "will be the main celebrant at the Mass … along with Father Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International."

The newspaper noted that "The remembrance is part of an 'International Day of Prayer and Remembrance,' also referred to as 'Terri's Day' established two years ago by the two [anti-abortion] organizations."

Jon Eisenberg told AlterNet that Pavone "has campaigned against advance directives," and has said on his website that "A person who leaves clear instructions that they don't want to be fed is breaking the moral law by requesting suicide."

In late April, country music star Randy Travis with opening act Collin Raye will be appearing at first annual Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Concert, which will be held at the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana. According to the North Country Gazette , Funds raised through ticket sales and sponsorships for this event will allow Terri's [ The Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation] Foundation to honor her legacy in many ways. Most importantly, it will allow the foundation to continue protecting the lives of vulnerable persons who are in jeopardy of having their lives hastened."

Over the past five years, the Terri Schiavo case has inspired no bio-pics or made for television movies. In the end, public opinion was firmly on the side of Michael Schiavo. Republicans and anti-abortion leaders clearly over-played their hand.

"Looking back with five years worth of hindsight, along with my experience in three subsequent right-to-die cases," Jon Eisenberg told AlterNet, "I think the most important lesson of the Schiavo case is this: Surrogate right-to-die decision-making is excruciating for all concerned and should remain a private matter for resolution by family and doctors if at all possible and by the courts only where absolutely necessary. There should never, ever, be interference by politicians, religious activists, and other opportunists; it only makes a difficult matter far more difficult."

Finally, Eisenberg added, another thing that he takes from the Schiavo case "is that the nation's Democratic [Party] leadership cannot always be counted upon to summon political courage and stand up to right-wing extremists. Harry Reid rolled over utterly and completely in the Schiavo case. We've seen that sort of behavior by the Democratic leadership again recently with the healthcare debate and national security issues."