John Leo

Just when it seemed that every liberal commentator on the Terri Schiavo case was starting to sound like Barney Frank, the great Joan Didion published a long and remarkable article on the case in the quite far left New York Review of Books of June 9. Frank, of course, took the occasion of last week's Schiavo autopsy results as yet another opportunity to denounce Republicans as ?this fanatical party willing to impose its own views on people.? For those of you still somehow unaware, ?imposing their views? is a semiofficial Democratic meme or code phrase meaning ?religious people who vote their moral views and disagree with us.?

Didion, on the other hand, cut through all the rhetoric about imposing views and said the struggle to spare Schiavo?s life was ?essentially a civil rights intervention.? This is a phrase of great clarity, particularly since Democrats have a long track record of protecting civil rights and Republicans don?t. Behind the grotesque media circus, the two parties were essentially switching roles. In the first round of public opinion?the polls?the GOP took a beating. But in the long run, the American people tend to rally behind civil rights, and the party that fights to uphold them is likely to prevail.

On the ?rational? or ?secular? side of the dispute, Didion wrote, there was ?very little acknowledgment that there could be large numbers of people, not all of whom could be categorized as ?fundamentalists? or ?evangelicals,? who were genuinely troubled by the ramifications of viewing a life as inadequate and so deciding to end it.? Amen. There was also little admission that this was a ?merciful euthanasia? controversy posing as a ?right-to-die? case.

Many of us understood, as the autopsy has now shown, that Schiavo was severely damaged, but a national psychodrama built around the alleged need to end a life without clear consent is likely to induce anxieties in all but the most dedicated right-to-die adherents.

Didion did not conclude that ending Schiavo?s life was a wrongful act, but she seemed to be leaning that way. She wrote: ?What might have seemed a central argument in this case?the ethical argument, the argument about whether, when it comes to life and death, any of us can justifiably claim the ability or the right to judge the value of any other being?s life?remained largely unexpressed, mentioned, when at all, only to be dismissed.?

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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