The politics of piety were transparently masked by Republicans attempting to make capital over the fate of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman who has been locked in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years and whose feeding tube was ordered to be removed by a Florida state judge at the request of her husband.
At last, the case that had been considered by 19 judges in seven courts and appealed to the supreme court three times, which refused to hear it, seemed resolved. But Republican congressional leaders and President George W. Bush seized upon the court ruling as the moment for "a great political issue," as a memo circulated among Senate Republicans put it. The Democrats, it declared, would find it "tough" and the conservative "pro-life base will be excited." The president, who had hesitated for three days before making a statement on the tsunami in December, rushed from his Texas ranch back to the White House to sign the legislation.
The Schiavo case is unique among all medical cases, including 35,000 other people in persistent vegetative states. It is the only one in which the parents, who are not legal custodians, have been granted by an act of Congress and the president a federal court review of state court rulings. Wresting jurisdiction from the state judiciary is an unprecedented usurpation, a travesty of the federal system, displacing the Constitution with an ill-defined faith-based "culture of life," enthroning by edict theology above the law.
In 1999, as governor of Texas, Bush signed a state law permitting hospitals to cease artificial life support when doctors decide reasonable hope is gone, even if the patient's family objects. Now, two months into his second term as president, his major domestic initiative to privatize social security is doomed, his budget dead on arrival and his poll ratings down to 45 percent approval, his low point.
His brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, has campaigned for years on the Schiavo holy crusade and has hired a prominent religious rightwing leader as the lawyer to represent the state in the case. In their legal battle the agonized Schiavo parents have made themselves financial dependents of two conservative groups, one anti-abortion, the other whose stated mission is to "confront and challenge the radical legal agenda advocating homosexual behavior."
The Senate majority leader, Senator Bill Frist, is a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. For him, the Schiavo case is the beginning of the struggle for Bush's succession. A heart surgeon before his entry into politics, the nameplate on the front door to his Capitol Hill office reads "William H Frist, MD," and he signs correspondence "Bill Frist, MD."
Amid the debate, after watching snatches of video tape of Schiavo, he proclaimed a diagnosis that she was not vegetative, contrary to the neurologists who have personally examined her.
Several months ago, in a national TV interview on ABC, Frist refused to acknowledge that saliva and tears cannot transmit AIDS-HIV, one of the shibboleths of the religious right.
The house majority leader, Representative Tom DeLay -- thrice rebuked by the house ethics committee, who has paralyzed the committee in order that it not consider new, more serious charges against him, whose closest aides are on trial in Texas for corruption and who has taken measures to try to protect his power from being stripped if he is indicted -- explained the Schiavo case as divinely inspired to rescue conservatives from martyrdom at a meeting of a rightwing group.