The plight of brain-damaged Florida Terri Schiavo continues to shake America. In an extraordinary move, the US Congress was recalled from its Easter recess to extend her life once again. The Senate voted unanimously and the House of Representatives voted 203- 58 to move the case to a Federal court. Her parents will argue that her constitutional rights are being denied by a local judge’s decision that food and water can be withheld, at her husband’s request, until she dies.
The Schiavo case has become the one of the most bitterly litigated right-to-life cases in US history. There are thousands of people like Terri Schiavo in US hospitals and hospices, but the dispute between her husband and her family has unfolded from a skirmish over bioethics and the sanctity of life to a war between Washington and the states, liberals and conservatives, black letter lawyers and activist judges, Democrats and Republicans, and secularists and Christians. The arguments have become tainted by personal invective, with the Schindler family’s supporters placing the character of Michael Schiavo at the centre of the debate and his supporters accusing them of religious fanaticism.
Michael Schiavo contends that his wife is now in a persistent vegetative state and that she had told him that she would not want to be kept alive in such circumstances. If this is true, a decision handed by the US Supreme Court in the 1990 case of Nancy Cruzan supports his view that all life support should be removed. In her family’s eyes, though, Mr Schiavo is a lying cad. They believe that she is at least partially conscious and can recover some of her functions. “My sister is innocent of any crime,” says Bobby Schindler, her brother. “She’s just disabled.”
Although the opposing sides do not really fissure along party lines, Republicans are exploiting the case to strengthen their support amongst conservative Christians. President Bush called it “a complex case with serious issues. But in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life.”
The [GOP’s] gamble is that that the general public will be divided on the issue and will not vote on the subject come 2006 [the Congressional elections], but that the Republican-base… group of conservative Christians will remember this vote forever,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Mrs Schiavo’s life is still in the balance. Immediately after the vote in Congress, her case was referred to a Federal judge. He has given no indication of what he will decide, or when.
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