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E.J. Dionne Jr.

A Thin View of 'Life'

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page A19

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- What does it mean to be pro-life?

The label is thrown around in American politics so blithely that you'd imagine it refers to some workaday issue such as a tax bill or a trade agreement. Might the one good thing to come out of the rancid politics surrounding the Terri Schiavo case be a serious discussion of the meaning of that term?

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To begin with, why did Congress feel an obligation to turn Schiavo's tragedy into a federal case? President Bush's answer was compelling: "In a case such as this, the legislative branch, the executive branch ought to err on the side of life."

You don't have to be a religious conservative to agree with that or to worry about prematurely allowing someone to die. But what, exactly, does "a case such as this" mean? Does it refer to one that received widespread publicity and became a major national cause for the right-to-life movement? Does it refer to one in which the parents and the spouse disagree?

There are countless decisions made every week when a family member removes someone they love from life support. Just over a week ago, a 5 1/2-month-old baby named Sun Hudson died after doctors at Texas Children's Hospital removed the breathing tube that had kept him alive. It was removed over his mother's opposition under the provisions of the 1999 Texas Advance Directives Act signed by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

Democrats such as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida have been arguing that Bush's decision to sign the bill aimed at protecting Schiavo's life is inconsistent with his earlier decision to sign a law designed to rationalize the way end-of-life decisions are made.

But leave that aside and just ask why Schiavo's case was a national cause and Sun Hudson's wasn't. I am sure there are medical and moral distinctions to be made, but honestly: How many bills would Congress have to pass to ensure that in every close medical call around the country, we "err on the side of life"? How many courts would have to be involved? That's why it's not surprising the Supreme Court decided yesterday to stay out of this controversy.

Whether or not signing that Texas bill puts the 1999 Bush at odds with the 2005 Bush, the act of approving it was an acknowledgment that end-of-life issues in an age of advanced medical technology must be confronted, however wrenching they are. Facing up to those questions and drawing distinctions is especially important for those -- and I'm one of them -- who oppose doctor-assisted suicide.

How has Terri Schiavo's care been financed? The available information suggests that some of the money came from one of those much-derided medical malpractice lawsuits and that the drugs she needs have been paid for by Medicaid.

The irony has not been lost on Democrats. Just a few days after most Republicans in both houses of Congress had supported cuts in federal funding of Medicaid, here they were erring "on the side of life" in a single case. The same issue has come up here in Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush, a strong supporter of keeping Schiavo alive, has been proposing cuts in Medicaid spending.

Republicans cry foul when any link is made between the Schiavo question and the Medicaid question. "The fact that they're tying a life issue to the budget process shows just how disconnected Democrats are to reality," harrumphed Dan Allen, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Forgive me, Mr. Allen, I know you're just doing your job, but what's disconnected from reality is refusing to accept the idea that health care is about life issues and money issues.

People who lack access to health care because they can't afford insurance often die earlier than they have to -- with absolutely no national publicity and with no members of Congress rising up at midnight to pass bills on their behalf. What is the point of standing up for life in an individual case but not confronting the cost of choosing life for all who are threatened within the health care system or by their lack of access to it?

What does it mean to be pro-life? As far as I can tell, most of those who would keep Schiavo alive favor the death penalty. Most favored allowing the assault weapons ban to expire and oppose other forms of gun control. The president makes an excellent point when he says we "ought to err on the side of life." It's a shame how rarely that principle is put into practice.


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