Grassroots/Hank Kalet

Politics of Life and Death

There are few things in politics more unseemly than watching a politician use a family's pain for political gain.

Except for maybe when the entire US Congress decides to make use of that pain.

That much of the country understood what was occurring bodes well for a nation that appeared on Nov. 5 to be in thrall to an irrational view of the universe. Three quarters of those polled by Time magazine in late March said Congress should not have intervened and two-thirds said the Republicans' actions were motivated by politics.

But the story of Terri Schiavo should not have been a political one. The general narrative is fairly well known. A then 26-year-old Terri Schiavo collapses from what the papers say was a potassium deficiency. Her heart had stopped and she suffered brain damage before the paramedics arrived. Because she could no longer swallow, a feeding tube was inserted directly into her stomach to deliver the nutrition and hydration she need to stay alive.

Her husband, Michael Schiavo, sued for malpractice and won $1.05 million -- $750,000 for damages for his wife and $300,000 for him for loss of companionship. It was that judgment -- and how the money would be used -- that triggered a dispute between Schiavo and his in-laws, Robert and Mary Schindler, that has only grown worse over time, as the the New York Times reported. About 10 years of legal wrangling followed, with Schiavo seeking to limit his in-laws' access to his wife while he followed what he said were his wife's wishes -- namely that she not be kept alive "artificially."

The case became a political football, with pro-lifers turning out in force to try to bully Schiavo into keeping his wife alive. The Florida Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush attempted to intervene, hoping to overrule a state court judge who sided with the husband, an attempt the courts turned away. Then came Congressional Republicans' naked attempt to play to its conservative base.

Basically, a poor woman's life ceased to matter as it morphed into political symbol. The reality, however, is far more complicated. At issue here are the definition of life, the determination of when it ends and what constitutes living. These are difficult concepts that the great religions and the greatest of philosophers have been debating for centuries.

What I found across the weeks that the Schiavo case played itself out on the national news was that I was ambivalent. On the one hand, I tend toward what I will call a convoluted pro-life position, tempered by my belief that we all have the ultimate right to control the fate of our own bodies. Basically, I believe that life is sacred, but will not impose my own definitions of life on others. That's why, while I have grave doubts about the morality of abortion, I must leave it for the woman facing the procedure to make the decision.

I also believe the scientist who defines life as beginning with the viability of the fetus is engaging in the same kind of rationalizing that the pro-life zealot does when he pinpoints the beginning at conception. They both have chosen a point along the continuum and pose their arguments accordingly. And neither can prove definitively that their opponent is wrong.

I know this line of reasoning may seem like a cop out or, worse, sophistry. But the issue forces into collision two tenets that I hold dear -- a deep respect for life and a belief that it is not the government's role to impose rigid moral codes on individual consciences.

The same quandary exists here. The questions at the center of this case are the basic ones I outlined above, plus one other: who gets to answer them. What complicates this is that the only person with the obvious right to decide Terri Schiavo's fate -- Terri Schiavo herself -- is not in a position to make the decision herself, and those closest -- her husband and her parents -- cannot come to an agreement.

That's why the state courts stepped in, ultimately ruling that the decision on the feeding tube is Michael Schiavo's to make.

What is troubling, ultimately, is that the process that played out did not seem to have Ms. Schiavo's best interests at heart. She did not have an independent advocate safeguarding her rights. As the case garnered more media attention, she was transformed into nothing more than a political symbol.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in central New Jersey. Email

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