The Schiavo Case Revisited

Original Article

Now that Republican Jeb Bush has made all the noises of a man running for president, expect the former governor of Florida to be attacked for trying to save the life of Terri Schiavo.

The first such criticisms have already been launched in the left-wing media. ThinkProgress quoted Terri’s widower Michael—who had two children with his now-wife while still married to Terri—warning: “If you want a government that’s gonna intrude on your life, enforce their personal views on you, then I guess Jeb Bush is your man.” In Harper’s, John R. MacArthur criticized Bush for “outrageous meddling .  .  . to ‘rescue’ brain-dead Terri Schiavo.” (Terri wasn’t “brain dead,” but what do facts have to do with leftist advocacy?)

Bush did indeed use his office in an effort to save Terri’s life. But he wasn’t alone. Nor were Republicans exclusively supportive of the cause. Contrary to popular memory, the effort to save Terri Schiavo was broadly bipartisan.

Schiavo suffered catastrophic brain injury in 1990 after an unexplained cardiac arrest. Michael and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, worked together for a time to seek rehabilitative care. They became estranged eventually, and when Michael petitioned a Florida court in 1998 seeking permission to stop Terri’s tube-supplied nutrition and hydration, Bob and Mary fought him in court, offering to provide their daughter’s care for the rest of her life.

The case burst into international headlines in 2003 after the Schindlers uploaded videos of Terri to the Internet, including one of her seeming to smile broadly at her mother’s greeting. Over the next two years, the Terri Schiavo case became the most heated bioethical controversy since the days of Jack Kevorkian and, indeed, it continues to roil public attitudes to this day.

By October 2003, Michael had cleared every judicial hurdle and ordered Terri’s feeding tube removed. After she had gone six days without food or water, the Florida legislature, at Bush’s urging, passed “Terri’s Law” allowing the governor to take control of her care. Bush ordered sustenance restored, but the law was ruled unconstitutional by the Florida supreme court in September 2004, seen widely as a major defeat for Bush.

Schiavo’s feeding tube was again removed. Now, the public storm moved to Congress. In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid cooperated on a bill that required a federal court to review alleged irregularities in the state’s judicial proceedings—an extraordinary, unprecedented proposal to grant federal jurisdiction over a legal matter the U.S. Supreme Court had already refused repeatedly to consider.

Time was of the essence as each day without sustenance, Terri grew closer to death. Getting the bill to the Senate floor before Terri died required unanimous consent. In other words, if even one senator refused, the Schiavo case was over except for the dying.

The bill was explosively controversial. What did the Democrats’ likely 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, do? Typical of her notorious angle-playing approach to politics, she said nothing one way or the other publicly—and along with every other senator, quietly consented to the bill receiving a floor vote. The federal “Terri’s Law” quickly passed, becoming one of the most bipartisan laws enacted during George W. Bush’s presidency. (Besides the unanimous voice vote in the Senate, it gained the support of about 45 percent of House Democrats.)

The rest is sad history. After a perfunctory review, the federal court found no irregularities and refused to halt the dehydration. Terri Schiavo died on March 31, 2005, at age 41.

When postmortem polls showed that the public opposed the federal involvement, many Democrats—Clinton among them—disparaged the very effort in which they themselves had cooperated. For example, at a 2006 fundraising appearance in Florida, Clinton hypocritically decried Republicans for “exploiting the tragedy of Terri Schiavo.”

Back when a catastrophically disabled woman’s life hung in the balance, Jeb Bush took a principled, if unpopular, stand. Contrast that with Clinton, who went along with the legislative effort to save Terri Schiavo, but in a politically calculated way: If the law had been popularly embraced, she could have taken credit for being on board. When it turned out that the law was generally unpopular, she pointed fingers.

Democrats are undoubtedly smiling at the prospect that Jeb Bush’s Schiavo effort will give him a bad odor among moderates—even as his positions on immigration and support for Common Core have conservatives holding their collective noses. But if trying to save Terri Schiavo from a slow death reduces Bush’s viability as a presidential candidate, then so too should it count against Hillary Clinton.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.