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.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
I returned to one of my favorite themes at New York this week in the context of the ongoing MAGA delegitimization of elections:
Donald Trump’s obsession with inflated estimates of the crowd sizes at his various live events has been a long-running joke in American politics. This was exhibited most famously in his bitter argument with the National Park Service over the number of people who attended his inauguration five years ago. But as Elaine Godfrey notes at The Atlantic, the phenomenon persists even today, and it’s central to MAGA claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump:
“Before the 2020 election, Trump and his fans would often ask reporters how Joe Biden could possibly win when he didn’t have rallies as big as Trump’s. Now that Biden is president, Trump-rally goers say things like Trump couldn’t really have lost. Look at all of these people! In Arizona this weekend, 51-year-old Tammy Shutts put it this way to me: ‘100 percent, 1,000 percent, 1 million percent Biden didn’t win’ her state, she said, gesturing to the hordes of people around her. ‘I’ve been in Arizona for almost 21 years. There is no way—no way—we went blue.’”
As Godfrey acutely observes, big crowds aren’t “just a bragging point” for Trump and his supporters. It’s “proof they are part of the American majority.” This both reflects and reinforces the core belief in MAGA land that more objective measurements of Trump’s popularity, like polls and election results, are unreliable and likely “rigged.” The proof? Look at those crowds!
Th preference for subjective instead of objective standards for political strength was not, of course, invented by Trump or his followers. It’s pretty common among political groups who don’t want to accept evidence that they are outnumbered or outgunned. During the home stretch of the very competitive 2012 presidential campaign, with polls showing Barack Obama building a solid lead over Mitt Romney, there was a profusion of Republican wishful thinking based not only on comparative crowd size but on the number of Romney yard signs evident along the highways and byways of the country. This obsession with the display of popularity reached epic levels during Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, which greatly valued huge flags and signs, boat parades, owning the libs with obnoxious motorcades through Democratic areas, and, of course, Trump’s rallies. The Biden campaign could not remotely match all this frenetic activity, in part, to be clear, because it considered it unsafe to voters, campaign operatives, and volunteers alike in the middle of a pandemic. But to an extent that leaves coastal elites baffled, the conviction has spread that Biden’s base of support was a statistical Potemkin village because it was far less visible.
Political operatives and pundits should examine themselves in the mirror before making too much fun of this hammerheaded, snail’s-eye view of political popularity. Some of its also stems from the incessantly discussed and near-universally accepted emphasis in recent political discourse on enthusiasm as a tangible election-winning asset. It does matter, to be sure, particularly in midterm and off-year contests, in which lukewarm voters often do not participate. But a candidate does not get extra votes for having supporters who are teeming with joy or fury, and enthusiasm beyond the point needed to get voters to the polls only helps if it is communicable. As a substitute for objective data about electoral outcomes, enthusiasm and its visible signs can be actively misleading.
But if your favorite president and partisan media have told you day in and day out for years that polls are fake news and elections are rigged, then direct experience of the strength of the political cause you share with so many others (in many places, with virtually all of your friends and neighbors) is all you’ve got. Add in a polarized atmosphere in which the other “team” is deemed actively evil and its supporters are dismissed as dupes or fellow-travelers in sin, and you get January 6, 2021. On that day, another crowd — “the biggest crowd I’ve ever,” according to Trump — formed to overwhelm Congress with its conviction that Biden’s victory was a lie because the Democrat didn’t command those monster crowds.
The sense that the MAGA movement feels like a majority and thus must be one is naturally growing stronger at a time when Democratic enthusiasm is low and Trump is plotting a triumphant restoration to power, whatever it takes. As Yeats famously said of post–World War I Europe just over a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Unfortunately, some of the worst believe their passionate intensity entitles them to rule.