Terri Schiavo and partisan hypocrisy

Posted: Mar 22, 2005 12:00 AM
In response to the GOP-led congressional action intended to restore Terri Schiavo?s feeding tube, those Democrats in opposition have attacked Republican hypocrisy in the case. Why suddenly, they ask, is the party of federalism and hostility to an overweening federal judiciary interfering in a state matter and handing the Schiavo case to a federal judge?

If it is disorienting to see Republicans scrambling for federal intervention, at least they are acting on their deepest pro-life convictions ? life is to be treasured in whatever form it takes, and preserving it is a paramount value. The starkest inconsistencies are on the other side, on the part of liberals who ordinarily support the federalization of everything, but can?t bear the thought of a federal judge reviewing the facts of the Schiavo case to determine whether or not she should be starved to death.

Let?s stipulate for the sake of argument that the facts of the Schiavo case are in dispute (and they really are) ? whether she is in a persistent vegetative state, whether she can improve, whether she had previously expressed a desire to die in these circumstances. Then, let?s tally the inconsistencies.

Federal habeas review. Deathrow inmates, as a matter of course, appeal their cases in the federal courts, even after they have been in the state courts (like the Schiavo case) for years. Liberals have traditionally defended this federal habeas review, even when it drags on endlessly. In the 1990s, Republicans passed legislation signed by President Clinton limiting death-row inmates to one federal appeal. Democratic Rep. John Conyers attacked the bill as ?inconsistent with our democratic system of laws.? Conyers was one of 53 House Democrats ? half of all Democrats voting ? to oppose giving Schiavo essentially the same right to have her case reviewed by a federal judge that he supports for convicted killers.

Civil rights. Under the Schiavo bill, a federal judge will review whether any of her federal civil rights have been violated. Since when do Democrats oppose federal scrutiny of potential civil-rights violations? They have consistently used the 14th Amendment to make what had previously been local matters ? from voting rights to housing ? the jurisdiction of the federal government on civil-rights grounds. They supported federal intervention in 2000 to investigate traffic stops on the New Jersey turnpike that allegedly violated motorists? rights. Traffic stops! But federal judicial review of whether Schiavo should live or die is out of bounds?

The disabled. Liberals have, to their great credit, been defenders of the disabled. They passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, a sweeping federal law to prevent the disabled from, for instance, being denied access to movie theaters ? a minor question, surely, compared with being denied sustenance. A principled Democrat in this regard is Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), an advocate for the disabled who supports taking ?every precaution? in the Schiavo case.

Violence against women. In the early 1990s, Democrats championed legislation to create federal penalties for gender-related violence. In other words, every time some abusive husband slaps his wife, it is a federal matter. But when a husband ? with motivations questioned by his wife?s family ? wants to starve his wife, suddenly some Democrats become George Wallace-like opponents of federal power.

The death penalty. Whenever life-related issues arise, liberals ask: How can conservatives favor preserving life when they support executing people? There?s an answer for that (for another day), but the more acute question is for the other side: How can you oppose death sentences for killers, but support one, in effect, for Schiavo, whose only crime is not being capable of feeding herself? Of course, it?s possible to oppose the Schiavo bill on principled procedural grounds, maintaining that it is not the business of Congress or the federal courts. But one suspects that as soon as they are considering anything other than the fate of poor Terri Schiavo, liberals will lose their newfound suspicion of federal action.