It is clearer every day that the politico-legal furor over the sad case of Terri Schiavo has already drifted over the line from a question of law and fact, to one of religiously determined definitions of life and death, and of homicide and suicide.Initially, the case being made by congressional Republicans, the White House, and many supporters of the Schindler family was that the Schindlers simply needed a new judicial review of the case in a sympathetic court–i.e., a court not bound by seven years of Florida rulings. And the subsidiary arguments had to do with matters of fact: Was Michael Schiavo correct in saying his wife had made clear her opposition to living on in anything like her current condition? And did the medical officials in Florida who repeatedly diagnosed Terri Schiavo as being in a “persistant vegetative state” somehow get it fundamentally wrong?But as the legal case for the Schindlers fades with each adverse judicial ruling, and absent any real evidence of medical error (unless you believe the diagnosis made by Bill Frist, M.D. from a videotape of Terri Schiavo has any real standing), what remains is essentially a religious case. And that case has merged with the extra-constitutional claims of the more militant elements of the Right to Life movement, which have become conspicuously involved with the Schindlers.In the hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Whittemore that was forced by Congress, the Schindlers’ attorney relied heavily on the argument that Terri Schindler could not have conscienctiously given consent to the withdrawal of her feeding tube because it was contrary to Catholic teaching; indeed, it would have put her immmortal soul in peril of damnation, he suggested! In other words, since the act itself is abhorrent, she couldn’t consent to “suicide” any more than she could give her husband the right to “murder” her.This line of reasoning, of course, was fully anticipated by the prime enabler of the current crisis, Tom DeLay, who has consistently referred to the course of action dictated by Florida law and pursued in many thousands of cases around the country as “murder,” “barbarism,” and “medical terrorism.”So for the Schindlers’ backers, including Tom DeLay, the object here is not about law or fact, or for that matter, about Terri Schiavo–it’s about finding some way to fundamentally change the laws of Florida and the United States to accord with a particular religious view of the ethics of the end of life.Best I can tell, the Catholic teaching that withdrawal of nutrition from a brain-dead person represents “euthanasia” is relatively new, laid out in 1995 in the papal encyclical “Evangelium Vitae.”As explained by Father Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, the encyclical draws a very sharp distinction between “an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering,” which is murder, and the “decision to forgo so-called ‘aggressive medical treatment,’ in other words, medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his family.” The latter decision is morally fine, even upright. “That distinction is subtle but extremely important from a moral perspective,” said Fr. Williams.I think we would all agree the distinction is subtle, much like the Vatican’s long-standing distinction between “natural” and “artificial” contraception, or its distinction between “contraception” and “abortion” with respect to birth control methods that interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall. American Catholics have largely ignored these “subtle” but “extremely important” distinctions in the area of reproductive ethics, and if the public opinion surveys about the Schiavo case are any indication, they will probably ignore this one as well. Which is why, in the end, the Schindlers and their crusade is ultimately becoming just another battle in the right-to-life movement’s long war to force a redefinition of life and the legal protections afforded it from the moment of conception to biological death.We all need to understand this this is what the case is really about, and (a) ignore the legal and factual arguments being thrown out as tactical maneuvers by the anti-abortion activists and Republican politicians pursuing this issue, because they don’t mean them for a moment, and (b) recognize that for most of the protestors marching in support of the Schindlers, the photos of poor Terri Schiavo (may she someday rest in peace) they wave are just this week’s version of the fetus posters they brandish every day of the year.ADDENDUM: Before anyone emails me to accuse me of anti-Catholicism or something, I want it on record that I am about as philo-Catholic as any Protestant you will ever meet. And I completely respect (but do not share) the views of right-to-lifers, especially those, including most recently the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who make a point of opposing capital punishment on the same grounds, and express greater concern than today’s Republicans for the health and prosperity of the sick and the poor. My plea in this post is simply for honesty, especially among those politicians who want to exploit the Schiavo case without embracing the logic of where it is inevitably leading.
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.