Jewish Lawmakers Dominate Debate Over Terri Schiavo

By E.J. Kessler

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
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Jewish Democratic lawmakers took the lead this week in demanding that Congress stay out of the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who has been kept alive for 15 years by a feeding tube.

In particular, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida took aim at President Bush. She criticized him for signing the law authorizing a federal review of the state court order that would allow the woman’s husband to disconnect her feeding tube.

The husband, who claims he is following Schiavo’s wishes by allowing her to die, is being opposed by the woman’s parents, who sought help from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and other conservative Republicans.

On Sunday, during a press conference before the congressional vote on the Schiavo law, Wasserman Schultz and two other Jewish Democrats, Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, were among the most outspoken lawmakers in condemning what they termed an abuse of power by GOP congressional leaders and an unwarranted federal intrusion into a family matter.

Representatives of various synagogue movements were divided in their treatment of the Schiavo case, but political observers said that the lawmakers undoubtedly reflected the majority of Jews around the country. Polls consistently have shown that as a group, Jews fall significantly to the libertarian left of the rest of the country on issues involving medical ethics, including abortion, stem-cell research and assisted suicide.

“Democrats in general and more secular Jewish Democrats in particular place an extraordinary value on individual autonomy and personal decision-making,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. “That is clearly evident in this debate.”

In the Schiavo matter, however, it appeared that a solid majority of Americans were siding with liberals — which immediately ignited a debate about the direction of the country.

A poll conducted last week by ABC News found that Americans strongly disapprove of federal intervention in the Schiavo case, with a 63% to 28% majority supporting the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube and 70% opposing the law mandating a federal review of her case. A 67% to 19% majority agreed with the statement that “elected officials trying to keep Schiavo alive are doing so more for political advantage than out of concern for her or for the principles involved.”

Meanwhile Conservative Republicans such as DeLay and Frist were seen widely as seeking to keep Schiavo alive in an effort to appeal to the Republican Party’s base of evangelical Christian voters.

“I look at this as a surrogate issue for abortion. It’s the same people,” pollster Glenn Kessler said.

The feeling that Republicans were seeking to make political hay out of Schiavo’s plight was reinforced when a GOP memo surfaced, urging them to capitalize politically on the issue.

“This is an important moral issue, and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue,” stated the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “This is a great political issue, because… this is a tough issue for Democrats.”

Frist disavowed the memo.

However, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said that Republicans would gain on the issue. “A lot of folks believe that life begins at conception and ends at natural death,” she said.

“It’s not just Bible-thumping, gun-toting evangelical Christians who espouse that view,” she said, adding, “We need to ask, ‘Can we countenance “cause of death: dehydration” in 2005?’”

But other Republicans were uncomfortable with politicizing the issue. Republican strategist Eddie Mahe warned that “this kind of issue is extra dangerous. It can change in 24 hours.”

“Has Ken Mehlman said anything about it?” Mahe asked rhetorically, referring to the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Mehlman minimized the political thrust of the Schiavo bill, saying that the president does not think the Schiavo case is a political issue, but that the “prudent and compassionate course” is to protect her life, according to NBC News.

Some commentators noted that much of the Democratic Party leadership took a pass on speaking out about the case, attributing the omission to a fear of a backlash on an issue touching on “values,” which proved there was a Democratic weakness in the 2004 election.

Democrats were quick to seize, however, on what they said was the GOP’s departure from its core small-government principles.

“The Republican Party long claimed it is the party of limited federal government,” Democratic pollster Mellman said. “When it comes to personal issues, Republicans now favor the greatest possible intrusion imaginable. They required the federal judiciary to intervene. There is a fundamental transformation going on of the Republican Party philosophically. It’s going to play out to their detriment for a long time.”

Wasserman Schultz took the floor of Congress on Monday to note that in 1999, when Bush was governor of Texas, he signed into law a bill called the Advance Directives Act, which allows doctors to decide to remove life support from patients whom doctors deem to be in an “irreversible condition.” The bill, she said, was “just used… to allow a hospital to withdraw, over the parents’ objections, the life support of a 6-month-old boy.”

“There is an obvious conflict between the president’s feelings on this matter now as compared to when he was governor,” Wasserman Schultz said.

At the Sunday press conference, Wexler said, “It’s not the place of Congress, in the 11th hour and in the most abusive fashion, to undermine the Florida court system.” Frank called the congressional intervention “the manifestation of a constitutional crisis” and said that the Republicans who had brought Congress into the Schiavo matter were violating “a fundamental precept of American government — that is, a limited government.”

In their plea this week to a federal judge, Schiavo’s parents drew attention to the religious dimension of the controversy. Their lawyer told a federal court Tuesday that Schiavo’s religious beliefs as a Roman Catholic were being infringed. The attorney noted that Pope John Paul II has decreed Catholics may not refuse food and water. “We are now in a position where a court has ordered her to disobey her church and even jeopardize her eternal soul,” the lawyer said.

DeLay, a Texas Republican, argued in an opinion piece in USA Today that Schiavo “has been denied even the most routine medical treatment” in Florida. He said that the failure to have her case heard by a federal judge was “a clear and egregious violation” of her constitutional rights. He added, “No legal, constitutional or political argument trumps that awesome moral duty of government to the governed — and all but a handful of the 535 members of the House and Senate agreed with that proposition.”






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