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March Madness 

The politics of life and death

Thursday, Mar 31 2005
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Illustration by Mr. Fish
We aren’t doctors. We just play them on C-SPAN.

—Barney Frank

In Hong Kong last week, I found myself reading the local edition of the China Daily, a newspaper so deep in the pocket of Beijing’s party bosses that it appears to be printed on lint. The merest glance at its eerily upbeat headlines — “Hero Worker Helps Change Attitudes,” “Migrant Workers Face Less Prejudice,” “Army Marches on Satisfied Stomach” — provided a useful reminder of what it means not to have a free press. The paper was so soul-numbingly dull (no Michael Jackson!) that I began to yearn for the crass hysteria of the American media.

Be careful what you wish for. I arrived home to the latest installment of March Madness. No, not the NCAA tournament (although those Illini really were fightin’), but full-court-press coverage of Terri Schiavo on her deathbed in Pinellas Park, Florida. The Asian media had been following the case, too, but there the whole saga took on an aura of dignity. Not so here in the United States, whose new capital of lunacy is surely the Gatorade State. Spend just a few minutes watching the protesters, the families (on Larry King, of course), or Governor Jeb Bush’s moral agony over which action would cost him the most votes in 2008, and you begin to appreciate that Carl Hiaasen is actually a realist.

All good satire contains at its core something profoundly serious. Here we had the thin body of Schiavo, a pitiably vulnerable creature stripped of consciousness, given no hope of recovery, and kept alive by tubes. One imagines that a gifted playwright could turn the fight over her fate into the stuff of tragedy, a conflict between two honorable intentions — providing a loved one a death with dignity after 15 years versus keeping a brain-damaged woman alive in case of a medical miracle. Instead, what might have been an occasion for reflection on how the generalities of science and law must grapple with the subtleties of soul and morality — the great riddle of existence — turned into an Easter-time black comedy dominated by fools, charlatans and scoundrels.

Although the Schiavo case had been going on for years, the story reached the public eye only because of an acrimonious family squabble. Unfazed by the personal complications, and delighted by the easy publicity, right-wing Christian leaders seized on L’Affaire Schiavo to promote their “Culture of Life” agenda. They were quickly placated by Republican politicians. Drawing on his experience as a doctor, presidential hopeful Bill “Cat Killer” Frist looked at carefully culled videotapes and declared, preposterously, that the specialists who’d actually examined her in the flesh were wrong about her condition. (And you thought your doctor was cavalier in his diagnoses.) Tom “Insect Killer” DeLay saw the chance to distract the world from his own corruption charges: A secret tape caught him telling a right-wing group that his old buddy God had given them the Schiavo case to help stop attacks against conservatives like, well, Tom DeLay. And then there was George W. “Convict Killer” Bush, a man who couldn’t be roused for days to comment on the deadly Asian tsunami and would sooner die than be photographed near the coffin of a fallen U.S. soldier. The president hopped out of his PJs and made a midnight trip to D.C. to sign an emergency law applying only to Terri Schiavo, declaring that one “ought to err on the side of life.” No doubt he thought he was being sincere, but it’s an error he ought to make more often.



Of course, Schiavo was the ideal beneficiary for all this ideologically driven concern. As a woman, she feeds the right’s paternalistic sense — even clearer in the abortion debate — that her fate should be in their hands. (It wasn’t only fear of subtitles that led the “Culture of Life” movement to attack Million Dollar Baby, which isn’t really about euthanasia though it kills off its heroine, but completely ignore the Oscar-winning The Sea Inside, which is, yet has a male hero.) Then, too, Schiavo is white and middle-class. Do you think Bush would’ve left Crawford to save a poor African-American? (Despite a flurry of coverage over the case of baby Sun Hudson, whose breathing tube was removed over the objections of his mother — thanks to a Bush-signed Texas law allowing hospitals to decide when to discontinue life-sustaining care — there have been no nationally televised vigils for his African-American mother.)

Above all, Schiavo is as helpless as a fetus. And while the right’s leadership is all about wielding power — be it Bush, Frist or our would-be Christian mullahs — ordinary members of the pro-life movement identify themselves, touchingly and sincerely, with the absolutely powerless. They wear the word “Life” taped over their mouths.

Naturally, the networks milked the story like a platoon of demented dairy farmers, prompting Jon Stewart to joke that the Schiavo feed tube should be removed from the cable news networks. When they weren’t interviewing gaudy-shirted Rick Warren, author of the religious self-help book The Purpose-Driven Life (known around my house as God’s OK You’re OK), they were replaying those misleading tapes of an apparently beaming Terri Schiavo. To accurately capture the truth of her life, you’d have to enter Warhol territory, broadcasting a 15-year-long tape of non-responsiveness. But truth mattered less than keeping the story hot.

While the so-called liberal media sought to give the whole episode the patina of seriousness — one awaited with dread the inevitable Time cover story, complete with handy tips on What It Means for You — the right-wing pundits were frothing. They called Michael Schiavo an “adulterer” and “bigamist,” compared removing his wife’s feeding tubes to Nazism, accused (conservative Christian) Circuit Court Judge George Greer of wanting Terri dead, and pretended that the occasional sick joke (a blogger comparing Schiavo to a Chia pet) exemplified the entire left’s life-hating heartlessness. The Wall Street Journal’s effortlessly idiotic columnist Peggy Noonan wondered aloud at the unseemly eagerness of the liberal pull-the-pluggers. Amid such rabidity — Fox even trotted out a TV psychic to tell us about Terri’s soul — one voice of reason was none other than William F. Buckley, who suggested that taking a loved one off life support after 15 years wasn’t exactly a moral snap judgment. Hell, the Third Reich only lasted 12.

Although “end-of-life issues” would seem to transcend ideology — indeed, Jesse Jackson showed up to support Terri’s parents — like almost everything in the Bush Era, it quickly became polarized on political lines. This wasn’t because liberals were burning to see the plug pulled. They didn’t secretly see Schiavo as a symbol of some Anti-Life agenda that the right insists they embrace. But they did treat her as a symbol — of an ongoing political power play. In keeping Schiavo alive, the Republican Party was serving the Christian right’s boundless desire to rewrite our laws, even our Constitution, in accordance with religious superstitions that most Americans don’t share. If it were up to me, I’d let Schiavo’s parents watch over her for the next quarter-century, but I do resist the Christian right’s bullying insistence that it is somehow the voice of Life. Especially when its members are eager to defund AIDS programs that promote the life-saving use of condoms, refuse to support health insurance for millions whose years are shortened for lack of care, and prefer tax refunds for billionaires to using our nation’s wealth to fight world poverty.

A few nights ago, Chris Matthews noted that, far from being unique, the Schiavo case proposed a scenario familiar to countless Americans who’ve seen their loved ones on the verge of death, been told there was no hope by the doctors, and been forced to make a painful decision. He was, of course, absolutely right. In fact, last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times reported that one person who faced such a situation was none other than Tom DeLay. And what did the House majority leader do? Why, he had his badly injured father taken off life support rather than make him live on in a way he would have found “degrading.”

I would never fault him for this decision, but I do find it nauseating that his spokesman claims that this case was “entirely different” from Schiavo’s because his father was on machines as well as a feed tube. I’d love to see the talented Mr. DeLay try to convince average Americans — 82 percent of whom think the president and Congress were wrong to interfere — that he’s not being phony when he says there’s a genuine moral difference between his personal decision to let his father die and his political insistence that removing the tubes of Schiavo is “an act of barbarism.”

As the Schiavo madness unfolded, I was reminded of Alexander Payne’s comedy Citizen Ruth, where Laura Dern plays Ruth Stoops, a white-trash druggie whose pregnancy lands her in a tug of war between the Right-to-Life and Pro-Choice camps. Neither side actually cares about her, only what she represents. In the end, Ruth exercises her own right to choose: She sneaks away all by herself. There could be no such escape for Terri Schiavo, who may be a symbol of Life, but whose actual life was taken from her long, long ago. Had the poor woman been able to grasp all the opportunism and religious mumbo jumbo unleashed in her name, she might have been tempted to pull out the feed tubes herself.

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