Sunday, January 29, 2012

The GOP Candidates and Terri Schiavo

In a recent debate in Florida, the GOP presidential candidates--all quite possessed with desire to secure the evangelical and Catholic vote--had a chance to take a swipe at end of life issues, via a question regarding the case of Terri Schiavo. Florida is the state where Schiavo resided until her death in 2005 and where a district court judge (appointed by a Republican) told the Attorney General, the sitting president, and Rick Santorum to bugger off.

While much of the media commentary after the debate simply recorded what the candidates said, few have debunked the meaning or intention of their statements.

Rick Santorum told the audience:

"I called for a judicial hearing by an impartial judge at the federal level to review a case in which you had parents and a spouse on different sides of the issue," said Rick Santorum, a U.S. senator at the time. "And these were constituents of mine. The parents happen to live in Pennsylvania, and they came to me and made a very strong case that they would like to see some other pair of eyes, judicial eyes, look at it.

"And I agreed to advocate for those constituents because I believe that we should give respect and dignity for all human life, irrespective of their condition," Santorum said.

Rick Santorum was very involved in the Schiavo case. Schiavo's parents did petition Santorum for support. They also initiated a media blitz that is still widely recalled today. The then-Pennsylvania senator was strongly behind government intervention into the case, despite his down-playing of that during the debate (most likely because the Republicans have ludicrously put the "keep government out of health care" on the Obama Administration's health care bill).

A "pro-life" Catholic who received the ultra-conservative FAMiLY LEADER endorsement in Iowa, has been vocal about his support for Vatican-led efforts to end abortion even in cases of rape and incest and to end the legalization of aid in dying. In keeping with the Schindler family's belief that Schiavo was "disabled," Santorum would most likely push efforts to support these beliefs because, as he has stated, his version of God's law defines human rights. Santorum's version of religious freedom--and that of all the candidate with the questionable exception of Ron Paul--allows for the "pro-life" motivated regulation of medical procedures.

Gingrich got a couple of issues mixed up. He compared the rights of civil patients to those of death row prisoners:

"Well, look," Newt Gingrich said. "I think that we go to extraordinary lengths, for example, for people who are on murderer's row. They have extraordinary rights of appeal. . . .

"It strikes me that having a bias in favor of life, and at least going to a federal hearing, which would be automatic if it was a criminal on death row, that it's not too much to say in some circumstances your rights as an American citizen ought to be respected," Gingrich said. "And there ought to be at least a judicial review of whether or not in that circumstance you should be allowed to die."

Gingrich mistakenly focused on the judicial proceeding in the Schiavo case. By the time Santorum and Republican lawmakers got involved, the judicial cases had been decided. What kept them going was the Schindler's and their allies unwillingness to comply. They kept appealing, then went to federal lawmakers and the media.

Paul answered:

I find it so unfortunate, so unusual, too. That situation doesn't come up very often. It should teach us all a lesson to have living wills or a good conversation with a spouse. I would want my spouse to make the decision.

Apparently Paul doesn't read Thaddeus Pope's blog where related cases are constantly featured. I also suspect that Paul doesn't know that there are an estimated 100,000 persistent vegetative state patients in the US at any given time. But his answer essentially repudiates what happened with Terri Schiavo.

Perhaps fully understanding that public opinion is in favor of patients' right to medical self-determination (polls in 2005 showed that the Schiavo fiasco was highly unfavorable to most Americans), legal services companies didn't lose the chance to offer their assistance with advanced directives and living wills in the wake of the GOP debate. Republican presidential candidates should pay attention to what end of life issues does to their polling numbers, particularly because their constituents tend to be old and white, the very same demographic willing to pay close attention to these issues. Choice at the end of life isn't as laden with issues of sex, guilt and shame that reproductive choice is.

For more on the debate and candidate's answers about end of life issues, go to GeriPal blog. I've written directly or indirectly about the Terri Schiavo case here and here.

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