Like Harry Shearer I

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Like Harry Shearer, I have been reluctant to wade into the Terri Schiavo case, given the comic-book biology and tabloid metaphysics that have dominated media treatment of this poor woman’s fate.

But that was before Republicans called Congress into an emergency session this weekend to take jurisdiction over the case away from the Florida courts, and take control of Schiavo’s body away from her husband.

During a long drive today, while trying to find a basketball broadcast on the boombox that provides radio in my very old car, I happened upon the voice of Tom DeLay pontificating on the Schiavo case, and it made me physically ill. His claim was that what’s happening to Schiavo would be illegal if it happened to a dog.

The cynicism and hypocrisy of that line of reasoning is breathtaking, even coming from Tom DeLay. Untold tens of thousands of American families face the same agonizing decision–whether or not to continue mechanical life-support in terminal cases–every year. My own family faced it a few years ago. And very often, the issue is the same as in the Schiavo case: taking out the feeding tube, or continuing it indefinitely.

The only unique thing about this case, of course, is the extended legal battle between Shiavo’s husband and parents, and the media notoriety that has made it so ripe for political opportunism.

Do DeLay, his supporters in Congress, and those Men of God so conspicuously on display down in Florida really propose to picket every intensive care unit, nursing home, and hospice in America to ensure that no family facing Schiavo’s situation is allowed to let their loved one die? Is Congress really going to legislatively ban natural death so long as some theoretical means is available to continue it? Oh no, says James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and DeLay’s prime enabler in this weekend’s grandstand play: the “emergency” legislation is “narrowly targeted” and not designed to set a precedent.

In other words, this is pure political exploitation of a private family conflict that’s become a media sensation, even though it involves a very common, if, for the people involved, agonizing event.

As such, the GOP’s Schiavo intervention is of a piece with other cynical efforts by Bush and his supporters to signal support for a “culture of life” without much regard for logic and consistency. It’s a whole lot like the Bush position on human embryo research, as a matter of fact. Many thousands of human embryos are created each year in fertility clinics; it’s only when it is proposed that these certain-to-be-discarded embryos be used for life-saving research that the Hammer comes down and Congress is asked to take a stand for life. Wouldn’t want to inconvenience or embarass possible Republican voters utlilizing those fertility clinics, right?

But this time, I suspect the transparent cynicism of the we’re-absolutists-on-life-if-it’s-in-the-news posture of the GOP may backfire. It is very hard to pose as a pro-family, pro-states-rights, anti-Washington political party when you call Congress into an “emergency session” to interfere with the laws of Florida and the prerogatives of one poor husband trying to respect his wife’s wishes. If, as we are told, George W. Bush is about to lend his authority and signature to this disgraceful exhibit of overweening government power, the persistant media idea that he’s just a genial well-meaning man who happens to preside over a party of loony extremists and corrupt hacks needs to die a natural death.

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