Power Play: Why Terri Schiavo Became a Household Name

by Philip Watts

Revolutionary Worker #1274, April 10, 2005, posted at rwor.org

Terri Schiavo died last week after living nearly 15 years, almost a third of her entire life, in a hospital or hospice— kept alive with the assistance of a feeding tube.

In 1990 Terri, who was in her late twenties, suffered from a heart attack and collapsed to the ground. The heart attack was brought on by low potassium levels, indicating a probable serious eating disorder. The heart attack cut oxygen to Terri's brain and left her severely brain-damaged.

Terri's case was not one of a kind. In fact it is not uncommon for human beings to suffer from various forms of severe brain damage due to strokes, heart attacks, or other forms of trauma to the brain. It is also not uncommon for people to be taken off of life support systems, be it medical machines or feeding tubes, when it is determined that they no longer can have quality of life because of pain or loss of mental function.

Why did Republicans in the U.S. Congress hold an all-night session to craft an unprecedented law aiming to undermine the Florida judiciary and take Terri Schiavo's case before federal courts? Why did both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives rush to write this new law— which President Bush flew in from his Texas ranch to sign the next day?

The clear and overwhelming opinion of people in the country was that Terri should be allowed to die. People sympathized and agreed with Terri's husband, Michael — that Terri's wishes not to be kept alive in a vegetative state should be honored and that the decade-long dispute between Michael and Terri's fundamentalist Catholic parents be ended.

And yet why the fervor and extralegal maneuvering by such powerful forces in the country as major leaders in U.S. Congress, the Senate and the President?


Straight up: the only reason Terri Schiavo became a household word is because her situation became a rallying point for powerful right-wing Christian fundamentalist forces.

From the beginning, the situation of Terri Schiavo was taken up by right-wing religious forces. They started by attacking her husband, Michael, because after learning Terri would not recover he started another relationship and had two kids "out of wedlock."

In 1998 Michael Schiavo petitioned the court to have Terri's feeding tube removed. Since that time her case has been heard by at least 19 judges in six courts. When the courts decided in early March that finally, after 15 years, Terri's feeding tube should be removed and this severely brain damaged woman should be allowed to die, big waves started to rip.

On the ground the Christian fascist movement flooded into Florida. Terri's parents brought in Randall Terry. Randall Terry — extreme Christian fascist and founder of one of the most violent antiabortion groups, Operation Rescue — became a spokesman against Terri Schiavo's right to die. And right beside him were the hard edge of the anti-abortion movement, Paul Schenck, Rev. Frank Pavone, and Rev. Pat Mahoney. Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and chairman of the anti-woman group Campaign for Working Families was quoted all over the newspapers, demanding a change in the whole legal framework and for religious standards to be applied in many life-and-death issues for the people.

With gross hypocrisy President Bush— who actually believes that God wanted him to be president—weighed in on the matter of Terri Schiavo, stating, "In extraordinary circumstances like this, it is always wise to err on the side of life."

Can you imagine! George W. Bush—who has justified the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani people in a war for empire based entirely on lies; who has justified signing the death warrants of over a hundred people in the face of massive opposition to the death penalty—talking about "erring on the side of life." But he didn't just talk — he flew from his ranch the day after Palm Sunday to sign a bill into law.

Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, Christian fascist and leading member of Congress, was instrumental in crafting the so-called "Palm Sunday Compromise," the law designed to overrule the decisions of the Florida courts. And here, we have to ask, what is the U.S. Congress — in a country which was founded on separation of church and state and "freedom of religion"—doing naming a law after a Catholic religious holiday?

After Terri's feeding tube was finally removed, DeLay—who took his own father off life support—threatened the courts in a statement, asserting: "the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior." He later said he wanted to "look at an arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their nose at Congress and the president."

Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, Senate majority leader, potential presidential candidate in 2008, and Christian fascist also weighed in on the Schiavo case. Frist used his "medical expertise" as a heart surgeon to make an absurd diagnosis of Terri Schiavo from watching an hour of videotape, concluding, "She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli." Frist's comments intended to lend credibility to those who argued unscientifically that Terri had consciousness. Frist further revealed that his so-called scientific expertise was not in touch with reality on ABC's Sunday morning news show, by weaseling around when George Stephanopoulos asked him to admit that it is a known scientific fact that you can't transmit HIV/AIDS through tears and sweat.

Rick Santorum, a powerful Senate Republican from Pennsylvania and gay-hating Christian fascist, also weighed in heavy on the Schiavo case. Saying he would do everything in his "power" to keep the feeding tube in. Not to be outdone by his fascist pals, Santorum took antiscience to new heights claiming Terri Schiavo was suffering "close to equivalent of someone with the disease cerebral palsy."

It is rather remarkable that here you have top-ranking representatives of the ruling class—and there were more than just those named in this column—calling everything to a halt over a case like this, making threats against judges, talking tough, writing new laws and straight up implying the possibility of extralegal activity.


"Straight up—Bush and his people aren't just ordinary Republicans. And they're not ordinary Christians either. They are Christian fascists—dangerous fanatics who aim to make the U.S. a religious dictatorship and to force this upon the world. If they get their way—and they are very far along the road to getting it—society will be plunged into a high- tech Dark Ages."

—from "The Battle for The Future Will Be Fought From Here Forward!"