Columns » Max Brantley

The politics of dying

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I talked to two Arkansas congressmen less than 12 hours after Congress thrust itself into the Terry Schiavo case. She’s the Florida woman, in a vegetative state for 15 years, whose husband wants to end her life by removing her feeding tube. U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, a pharmacist, said Congress had “no business” getting involved in such decisions. U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, a physician, said “bad facts make bad law” and that Congress had decided the issue without informed debate. But, yes, Berry and Snyder both voted for the legislation. It is a terrible precedent. The Democratic Party’s general silence on the issue troubled me. Was it a product of the “Blue Dog” movement that Berry happened to come see us about Monday? The idea is to persuade voters that Democrats believe in God and guns just like Republicans do. If acquiescence in the Schiavo case was a political strategy, it was a mistake. Polls consistently show that people don’t want Congress interfering with end-of-life medical decisions. Smart people take care to make their wishes known, with “living wills” and durable powers of attorney. Even these can be problematic. My father’s painful last days prompted my mother to leaflet family and doctors with her “advanced directives.” Yet, when an embolism brought her time near the end, her nursing home couldn’t find the document. Nurses were prepared to hook her up to a machine until I rushed in with a power of attorney. No, it was not easy. But I know when she died, her hand holding mine, that she wanted no more medical intervention. Terri Schiavo’s parents would want her life prolonged even had she left written instructions. They don’t believe the extensive evidence that she’s at the point provided by law for her husband to decide. You cannot fault Schiavo’s parents for this. But you can fault those in Congress who responded to their appeal on purely emotional or, worse, partisan grounds. The parents had no more legal standing to argue for further court hearings than the anti-abortion crusaders who turned up in Florida to harass Schiavo’s husband. Congress has effectively reopened the right-to-die issue. In a perverse political sense, it would be wonderful politically if the strict “pro-life” side would prevail. This faction would prohibit all decisions to end life, instructions or no instructions. Life would be required to go on until it reached its “natural,” dreadful end. This won’t happen because it would outrage most Americans. It also won’t happen because it would be too expensive for “pro-life” Republicans to swallow. As Texas governor, George W. Bush backed legislation that allowed hospitals to disconnect life supports of terminally ill patients who couldn’t pay the bill, even if families objected. Vic Snyder said he was persuaded to vote aye partly by the language of the law that said it would be a special case. Also, he said, “I came down on the side of letting her parents have another opportunity to make their case.” For the public record: If I’m in a vegetative state and someone pleads to Tom DeLay to prevent my “murder,” as some overheated partisans have put it this week, thanks but no thanks. Pull the damn plug.

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