Second Thought: Wednesday, April 06, 2005
Death Be Not Political

Bush should err more often on the side of life.


How much rank hypocrisy is there in the Terri Schiavo case — let me count the ways. First of all, the president told one of his hand-picked crowds that the case is complicated and that “when something is this complex, it is better to err on the side of life.”
Besides his mispronouncing “err,” (it rhymes with fur, not fair), I agree completely that it’s complex. End-of-life issues are agonizingly difficult, and that’s why all of us who will face them sooner or later are chilled by the thought that Congress has turned a legal and family issue into a festival of political hypocrisy — not to mention trashing constitutional law in the process.
Congress has no power to overturn judicial decisions, nor should it have any role in painful personal decisions. Bush left his ranch in the middle of the night so that he could do what he does best: star in his own political theater. No doubt Karl Rove made it clear that the Christian Right is nervous. They gave the president a second term, and he hasn’t said a word since about banning gay marriage. He’s losing the Social Security debate and the stem cell research debate, and he’s having a very hard time convincing all but his most ardent supporters that the war in Iraq is worth the cost.
But this he can do: make one of his surprise visits to grab the spotlight and divert the nation’s attention from miserably failed policies. He can do this by pretending to care deeply for a brain-dead woman who was kept alive by a feeding tube for 15 years in the battleground state of Florida where his brother is governor.
Pardon me while I gag. If the president really means what he says about “erring on the side of life” when the situation is complex, then why didn’t he get out of bed sooner? The case for war against Iraq was complicated, and yet tens of thousands have died, including women and children as precious as Terri Schiavo.
As governor of Texas, Bush presided over a state whose death row became a killing machine, and he did so proudly. When asked about all the pardons he had denied (even when there was doubt as to guilt or innocence), he was incredulous and as certain about the divine right of the state to kill as he was about weapons of mass destruction.
Err on the side of life? Tell that to the nations of the world who tried to make progress on global warming, only to have pro-life Bush withdraw the cooperation of the world’s biggest polluter. Protecting the weak and the innocent? Tell that to the millions of poor Americans whose programs were cut to help pay for massive tax cuts for the rich and to apply a small tourniquet to a hemorrhaging budget deficit. So much for “compassionate” conservatism.
Err on the side of life? That is always the rhetoric of those who are in fact dealing death. Poor sons and daughters are dying in foreign lands to protect the silk suits and luxury cars of the old men who send them to the slaughter. If this is “pro-life,” then what has death got left to do?
Err on the side of life? Tell that to the thousands of victims of gun violence who know that Bush and Company are wholly owned subsidiaries of the NRA.
When “things get complicated,” Bush should remember that he is at a distinct disadvantage. Because, as one senator put it, he is “neither a neurologist nor a medical ethicist. So what on earth is he doing in this case?”
The answer is easy: making the rules for other people. The Cider House Rules that sound righteous but reek of hypocrisy. The rules that men want to make for women no matter how they become pregnant, or for workers who need protection, or for the juries whose decisions about lawsuits are the last thing standing between Big Business and complete ethical impunity.
If Bush had his way, the medical malpractice suits like the one that provided the care for Terry Schiavo for many years while she was in a “persistent vegetative state” would be outlawed. These same hand-wringing moralists who love “family values” just made bankruptcy harder for families hit by just this kind of medical tragedy.
God help us when 535 strangers in Washington get to decide what happens to our dying loved ones. Now that Terri has died, one can only wonder why the Christian Right is so angry. If heaven is all they say it is, they should be rejoicing.

Dr. Robin Meyers is the longtime senior minister at the Mayflower United Church of Christ of Oklahoma City and a professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma City University.

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