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
I ran across a quote from Kyrsten Sinema this week that made me angry, so I vented my spleen at New York.
In a cloying little exchange of pleasantries before Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema spoke from the podium of Mitch McConnell’s eponymous center at the University of Louisville on Monday, the Senate Republican leader called the Democrat “the most effective first-term senator” he’d ever seen. McConnell was probably being sincere given Sinema’s role, along with Joe Manchin, in saving the filibuster, the chief tool in the GOP’s obstructionist bag of tricks. He could have called her a “one-term senator” since her demise in 2024 seems all but certain after she alienated as many Arizona Democrats as she could, but that wouldn’t have been gracious. Instead, he went on to give her the highest token of his esteem, calling her a “deal-maker.”
For her part, Sinema noted that she and McConnell share a “respect for the Senate as an institution,” a statement she reinforced by calling for the restoration of 60-vote thresholds for executive and judicial-branch confirmations in the upper chamber, which were abolished by serial Democratic and Republican majorities in 2013 and 2017, respectively. Sinema is, you see, an old-school respecter of the Senate, which makes me sick to my stomach.
Anyone who spends time around the Senate (I worked there in the late 1980s and early 1990s and with Senate offices for years before and after that) is aware of the extremely high regard in which senators hold themselves “as an institution.” They don’t publicly bash House members as petty-minded, party-bossed parochial Lilliputians who have to spend all their time running for reelection. But the unstated though very real mutual disdain of the two congressional chambers is deeply rooted in the Senate’s distinctive constitutional role as an anti-democratic redoubt of entrenched privilege.
This is nowhere more apparent than in Sinema’s beloved filibuster, which in its most recent incarnation has made supermajorities a requirement for even routine legislation. But lest we forget, even if the filibuster went away, the Senate’s grant of equal power to all 50 states is profoundly undemocratic. The states themselves are not allowed to get away with such a gross misappropriation of legislative power. In the 1964 decision in Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, under the Equal Protection Act of the 14th Amendment, state legislatures had to respect the principal of “one person, one vote,” with seats in the upper as well as lower chambers being awarded in districts of equal population. As Chief Justice Earl Warren famously wrote in the Court’s opinion in a 8-1 decision:
“Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system.”
The logic is the same with respect to the model for all those once-oligarchical state upper chambers, the U.S. Senate itself. But the Senate has its own separate, unassailable constitutional basis. The Article I, Section 3 provision of the Constitution providing for equal representation of states in the Senate is expressly exempted from amendment in Article V (“no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate”). So we are stuck with an anti-democratic chamber. But we don’t have to celebrate it.
It’s important to remember the two reasons we have a U.S. Senate. First, it represented a compromise with those in the founding generation who wanted an unelected body like Britain’s House of Lords to counteract “the people’s House,” the lower chamber. But more important, as James Madison made clear in “Federalist 62,” it was essential to the ratification of the Constitution that the country maintain its original character as a compact of states, not as a truly United States:
“It may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each state, is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual states, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty …
“Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the states.”
This understanding of the country as a modified confederation of states with a stronger central government than it originally had more or less perished with the outcome of the Civil War and the ratification of the Civil Rights Amendments (including the 14th Amendment, that great and still-evolving guarantee of individual rights against states rights). But the Senate remains as a relic of the era when McConnell’s hero Henry Clay and a host of other patriarchal slaveholders held the Union temporarily together by engaging in “deal-making” at the expense of human dignity. The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913 and providing for the popular election of senators instead of letting state legislatures choose them, took the chamber as far toward democracy as a flawed Constitution would allow.
“Respect for the Senate as an institution” means contempt for democracy as a fundamental value. That is why those with respect for democracy — particularly those who profess to be a member of the Democratic Party — should do everything possible to minimize the Senate’s ability to function according to the Founders’ design instead of boasting about making the chamber even more susceptible to high-handed measures to frustrate the popular will.