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Richard Cohen

'A Great Political Issue'

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page A17

Sen. Bill Frist watched a videotape last week of Terri Schiavo made by her parents in 2001. He did this in his capacity as Senate majority leader and as a renowned physician. In both roles he performed miserably. As a senator, he showed himself to be an unscrupulous opportunist. As a physician, he was guilty of practicing medicine without a brain.

After viewing the tape, Frist felt confident in questioning the several courts and many doctors who -- apparently handicapped by firsthand examinations -- had erroneously concluded that Schiavo was in a "persistent vegetative state."


(Destany Jackson, 4, In Pinellas Park, Fla. Mark Guss -- AP)

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"I question it based on a review of the video footage," he told the Senate. "She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli." Doubtful. What's more certain is that Frist and his colleagues were responding to political stimuli: the so-called right-to-life crowd.

Frist and his (mostly) GOP colleagues were operating under such pressure that they sometimes did not know which subterfuge to adopt. After all, it should not matter -- it must not matter -- if Schiavo is in a vegetative state or not. What should matter -- under right-to-life reasoning -- is that she is alive. In many respects, she is as alive as a zygote the moment after fertilization or a fetus that will die shortly after birth -- or any other manifestation of life as it either exists or is proclaimed to exist. Life is life, Frist. Get with the program.

But the unreasonableness of the Republican position -- President Bush hurrying back to Washington to sign the bill as soon as it was passed -- flummoxed speaker after speaker. Rep. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, proved you don't need a medical degree to make foolish statements about Schiavo. "It won't take a miracle to help Terri Schiavo," he said, neglecting to cite his source. "It will only take the medical care and therapy that all patients deserve." DeLay then forgot to have Schiavo yanked from the Woodside Hospice, where he apparently believes that she is not getting such care, and went on about his business. This is the thanks the hospice gets for caring for Schiavo gratis.

Someone -- no one knows who -- committed candor and truth in Washington (a federal offense?) by circulating a memo to Republicans alerting them to the obvious: Schiavo was "a great political issue." Frist, who is almost certainly running for president next time out, took umbrage at that: "I condemn the content of the memo," he umbraged, "and reaffirm that the interest in this case by myself (and others) is to assure that Mrs. Schiavo has another chance at life."

Bravo! But why not insist that whatever state she's in, she keeps getting a chance at life -- forever? After all, a miracle could happen (DeLay), and she recognizes visual stimuli (Frist) and "she can recover substantially if she gets the proper rehabilitation" (Frist again, this time citing another doctor). Almost no one here is a hands-on doctor, but they don't hesitate to play one on TV.

Watching the House debate Sunday night, I wondered why the Democrats -- some of them, anyway -- even bothered debating the bill. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was eloquent and persuasive, but the GOP had the votes. Congress was intent on intruding into a family matter in which the courts had ruled repeatedly in favor of the husband. The parents felt otherwise, granted, but they had had their day in court. Those courts did not rule as Congress would have liked and so, by pretty close to fiat -- no hearings, no witnesses and absolutely no thought -- the matter was moved to the federal courts, where the outcome will probably be what it was at the state level. A change in jurisdiction is not going to change Schiavo's condition.

Terri Schiavo's husband said she would not want to live the way she does now -- and that she even said so. But she was only 26 when tragedy struck, probably too young to have given serious thought to these matters. Besides, what she once wanted is not the point. That person is gone -- or so say the experts and so say the courts that have heard from the experts. What remains is a legal case that no longer is about Schiavo. Instead it's about the politics of abortion -- right to life -- and political opportunism. Terri Schiavo lives so that others, notably Frist, can run for higher office. I know that by watching the tape.

cohenr@washpost.com


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