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Where's The Apology?
Bending the Facts on Schiavo

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, June 17, 2005

We are entitled to our moral, ethical and philosophical commitments. We are not entitled to our own facts.

So why is this basic rule of argument often ignored by politicians whose certainty about their righteousness convinces them that they can say absolutely anything to further their causes?

The autopsy in the Terri Schiavo case provides a rare moment of political accountability. We should not "move on," as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist suggested. No, we cannot move on until those politicians who felt entitled to make up facts and toss around unwarranted conclusions about Schiavo's condition take responsibility for what they said -- and apologize.

Nothing in the autopsy report prevents those who opposed removing Schiavo's feeding tube from continuing to insist they were right. It's legitimate and honorable to argue on philosophical grounds that every medical decision in a tragic circumstance such as Schiavo's should be made on the side of keeping the sick person alive.

But those who supported an extraordinary use of federal power to force their own conclusion against the judgment of state courts knew that philosophical arguments would not be enough. Most Americans were uneasy about compelling Schiavo's husband, Michael, to keep his wife alive if -- as the state courts had concluded and as the autopsy confirmed on Wednesday -- she had suffered irreversible brain damage and was incapable of recovering.

So the big-government conservatives had to invent a story. They had to insist that they knew, just knew , more about Terri Schiavo's condition than the doctors on the scene. They had to question Michael Schiavo's motives and imply that he wanted to, well, get rid of her.

"As I understand it," Frist said on the Senate floor, "Terri's husband will not divorce Terri and will not allow her parents to take care of her. Terri's husband, who I have not met, does have a girlfriend he lives with and they have children of their own." No accusation here, just a brisk walk through innuendo city.

Dr. Frist, as he likes to be known, didn't just make his case as a pro-lifer. He invoked his expertise as a member of the medical profession. "I close this evening speaking more as a physician than as a U.S. senator," Frist said during the March 17 debate on the bill forcing a federal review of the case.

Proffering references to medical textbooks and journals, Frist led his colleagues through to his conclusion. He argued that "a decision had been made to starve to death a woman based on a clinical exam that took place over a very short period of time by a neurologist who was called in to make the diagnosis rather than over a longer period of time." Dr. Frist, in other words, was offering a second opinion.

In an appearance yesterday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Frist insisted: "I raised the question, 'Is she in a persistent vegetative state or not?' I never made the diagnosis, never said that she was not."

Well, that depends on the meaning of "diagnosis." In the midst of his impressively detailed medical review, Frist declared flatly: "Terri's brother told me Terri laughs, smiles, and tries to speak. That doesn't sound like a woman in a persistent vegetative state."

So, Frist wanted to be seen as having the medical expertise to support his conclusion when doing so was convenient -- and now wants us to think he did nothing of the sort.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay didn't pretend to be a doctor, just expert enough to know what was wrong with the news reports.

"Mrs. Schiavo's condition, I believe, has been at times misrepresented by the media," DeLay said on March 20. "Terri Schiavo is not brain-dead; she talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort. Terri Schiavo is not on life-support."

You wonder: Will DeLay now say to the media that he's sorry? Will he acknowledge that, in the Schiavo case, he honestly didn't know what he was talking about?

Right-to-life politicians have done terrible damage to a serious cause. They claimed to know what they did not, and could not, know. They were willing to imply, without proof, terrible things about a husband who was getting in their way. Instead of making the hard and morally challenging case for keeping Terri Schiavo on life support, they spun an emotional narrative that they thought would play well on cable TV and talk radio.

No, we should not move on. We should remember that some politicians will say whatever is necessary to advance their immediate purposes. Apologies, anyone?

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