The Magazine

Awakenings

The Schiavo case revisited.

Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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This myth has become a staple of the Democratic presidential campaign, despite the fact that the denigrated legislation was enacted in almost record time by one of the most bipartisan congressional margins seen during the Bush presidency. Indeed, passage in the Senate required unanimous consent, which means any senator--including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd (but not Barack Obama, who was not yet in the Senate)--could have stopped the bill in its tracks by simply saying no. None did so. Just as they voted for the Iraq war and later opposed it when it became unpopular, these Democrats pretend they were not essential players in the federal effort to save Schiavo's life. (The bill also received support from about 40 percent of House Democrats.)

This political revisionism about the Terri Schiavo case coincides with a panicked retreat among many who once robustly opposed dehydrating the cognitively disabled. Emboldened are those who seek to supplant the equal sanctity of human life with a "quality of life" value system that accords to the profoundly cognitively impaired less value than the rest of us. This cultural tide now endangers thousands of people whose lives depend on how they are perceived by doctors, family members, and society.

In this climate, Jesse Ramirez-type stories can become more numerous, yet still barely penetrate the public consciousness. Increasingly, we hear about sustenance being withdrawn within days of a serious brain injury. And now that these helpless people are deemed dehydratable, there is a growing clamor in the professional journals to transform them into natural resources to be exploited like a corn crop--as sources of vital organs and subjects for experimentation. To show how far this line of thinking has already gone, bioethicists writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics recently advocated transplanting pig organs into people diagnosed with PVS to determine the safety and efficacy of xenotransplantation (the transplantation of animal organs into human patients).

A serious cultural consequence of the Terri Schiavo drama has been the devaluation of the weakest among us into a disposable and exploitable caste. But it is not too late to reverse the tide. Jesse Ramirez, Haleigh Poutre, and the groundbreaking research into the treatment of serious brain injury are powerful reminders that where there is life, there is hope. Those who understand that all persons, regardless of capacity, deserve to be treated as beloved members of the human family have good reason to shake off the Schiavo rout and return to the fray.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.

Correction 11/01/07: This article mistakenly stated that John Edwards was in the Senate, and Barack Obama was not, when the Senate passed by unanimous consent a bill to save the life of Terri Schiavo. Edwards's term in the Senate was 1999-2004. Obama took office in January 2005, and the vote was that March.