The Magazine

The Politics of the Schiavo Case

From the April 4, 2005 issue: Losing the battle, winning the war.

Apr 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 27 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
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IN HER 1993 NOVEL The Children of Men, P.D. James depicts the world of 2021. A mysterious infection has rendered humanity infertile--the last baby is believed to have been born in 1995--yet British authorities move forward with their program of "voluntary" euthanasia for the elderly and others who cannot meet society's standards for "quality of life." The euthanasia program, called the Quietus, involves an inspirational, music-accompanied mass march into the sea, and is depicted by the authorities as pleasant, gentle, even euphoric. But a single old woman changes her mind at the last minute, and has to be clubbed to death.

The starvation/dehydration of Terri Schiavo at the command of her husband does not bring us to that stage of social development. The blessing of his decision by federal and state courts, over the objection of the legislative and executive branches of government in Washington and Florida, is the upholding of a private killing for private purposes, not of government-sponsored mass killing. But the national scope of the controversy means that perhaps tens of thousands of feeding tubes all over the country have become far more precarious.

It was a substantive policy victory for forces opposed to the right to life (it doesn't seem accurate, in this instance, to describe these forces as "pro-choice"), but it may be a victory they come to regret. For one thing, in content it was far more an extension of the implications of legalized abortion than of assisted suicide.

Of the whole array of anti-life agenda items, assisted suicide receives the greatest level of support in public opinion polling, undoubtedly because it is seen as the least coercive. But in the end game of the Terri Schiavo case, the longstanding assertion by her husband that Terri would welcome what was being done to her seemed at most a formality. The courts all but made explicit that the killing was not really about her wishes but only about those of her husband and legal guardian. The implication that Terri's fate was to be the choice of the husband, and of him alone, followed the form of abortion law, which puts the choice in the hands of the mother, and of no one else.

This matters because abortion, not assisted suicide, is the mother of all American social issues. We say American, and not Russian or Chinese or British, because it is the American founding document that guarantees the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and asserts as its only authority that of the Creator--the authority of Nature and of Nature's God. If you had to pick one reason that there is a pro-life movement in America and not Europe, it is the nature of our founding.

Coming on the heels of the conviction of Scott Peterson for double homicide--of his wife and of his unborn son--the Schiavo case is the latest of a series of public debates and public events in which political momentum has significantly shifted to the pro-life side. If you doubt this, try comparing the public debate on abortion in the election year of 1992 with that of 2004. In 1992, it was Republican politicians and candidates who tried to downplay the abortion issue. In 2004 and today, it is Democrats who would rather talk about anything else, and are taking instruction on how to deflect the issue in their campaign schools.

It is no anomaly that Sen. Hillary Clinton received her most favorable coverage since the 2004 election when she made a calculated, conscious attempt to sound less pro-abortion and more pro-life. It is no anomaly that roughly half of the Democratic congressmen who returned to Washington to vote on the pro-Terri Schiavo emergency legislation in March voted Yes instead of No. And it is no anomaly that it's impossible to find a Democratic leader acting as if he takes at face value the ABC and CBS polls that purport to show strong national approval of Michael Schiavo and the array of federal and state judges who effectively gave him their blessing.

For President Bush and the social conservatives who comprise the central rampart of his base, the courts' naked assertion of judicial supremacy in deciding the fate of Terri Schiavo represents an important moment. This is because the premise of the Democratic filibuster of the president's conservative judicial nominees is that the Roe v. Wade decision must never again be called into question.

The judicial confirmation debate will now unavoidably be about whether democratic decision-making on abortion should continue to be prohibited by our courts and (effectively) by the American legal profession. From the beginning, those who believed Roe would corrupt the rule of law feared that state sanction of private killing would put all public order and all private restraint in doubt. The fate of Terri Schiavo makes clear that those fears were utterly on target.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.