TAMPA - Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has refused to stay executions for those judged guilty of capital murder, has stepped into a political and moral controversy involving an invalid whose parents want her to live and the woman's husband who wants to let her die. Late Tuesday (Oct. 21), Bush signed a hastily passed law granting him power to stay a court order that allowed doctors to remove a feeding tube from the woman and let her starve to death.
One broadcast network described the woman, Terri Schiavo, as existing in a "persistent vegetative state," which is not true. She is conscious, though brain damaged from unexplained heart failure in 1990 that deprived her of oxygen for 10 minutes. Her parents say she can communicate and appears to understand some words. Doctors are divided over whether her condition might improve. Other hopeless cases have seen miraculous reversals to the astonishment of medical experts. There is always a chance that Terri Schiavo could be another such miracle, but the chances that will happen are improved only if she is allowed to live.
Hard cases can make bad law. Some of the greatest inhumanities have been ushered in on the backs of hard cases, which open the door to other practices. Abortion on demand began with a case involving a pregnant woman who claimed she had been raped, which turned out not to have been the case. Bad law made for bad social policy, leaving unprotected more than 40 million never-born children.
It will be the same with euthanasia, which will be called something else, in order to protect the overstimulation of what remains of our moral senses. One Florida legislator, Rep. Dan Gelber, a Democrat from Miami Beach, said: "This bill oversteps our role. It not only sets a dangerous precedent, it turns democracy on its head." The dangerous precedent is not the sparing of Terri Schiavo's life, but the taking of it. And whatever could Gelber mean about "democracy"? The woman has been unable to vote, though her parents want to preserve her life and her husband wants to end it. That's a 2-1 majority, so if we're talking democracy, the majority favors letting her live.
One hesitates to trespass on the dynamics of another family. No one who has been spared the pain and expense of caring for someone in Schiavo's condition can possibly understand what all of the parties have gone through. But avoidance of pain is not the issue. The source and intrinsic value of all human life are the issues. If the government is allowed to order the death of one of its citizens when close relatives object and the patient's wishes are not spelled out in a legal document, how long will it be before government can order the death of other citizens for lesser reasons? If you think this an illogical conclusion, on what basis and by what standard could such lives be preserved after the precedent to take them is set and the moral argument is ceded?
The president of the Florida Senate, Jim King, a Republican from Jacksonville, said, "If we are going to err, then let us err on the side of caution." Since Roe vs. Wade removed all protection for the unborn, we have thrown caution about life and a lot of other things to the wind.
Government's first responsibility is to protect the lives of its citizens. There can be no argument that Terri Schiavo is a person under the law, though certain individuals and groups would like to reclassify people who do not measure up to their standards for human life, or who become too much of a burden on health-care providers and relatives.
The law gives all governors unrestricted power to stay executions, commute sentences and even pardon convicted felons. If the law can do that for the guilty, why shouldn't a governor have the power to preserve the lives of the innocent? Life is life, and all life is valuable, isn't it? Isn't it?
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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