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March 18, 2005

CONGRESS SUBPOENAS A HUMAN VEGETABLE--THE SCHIAVO CASE

In the latest of the truly obscene Republican exploitations of human suffering to get votes, the House of Representatives' GOP leadership announced this morning that they'd issue a subpoena for a human vegetable--the unfortunate Terri Schiavo, a Florida housewife whose brain's ability to function was destroyed fifteen years ago when a massive heart attack deprived it of oxygen. Led by Speaker Dennis Hastert, Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, and House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis of Virginia, the Republicans thus proposed to bring a woman who is brain-dead to Washington to testify. This is torture more vile than anything that was inflicted at Abu Ghraib.

This morning's announcement was followed by a terror ukase from Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist--in it, he made explicit a threat against Shiavo's doctors to have them prosecuted if they "obstructed" a Senate "investigation" of the Schiavo case by precluding her responding to an "invitation" to testify before a Senate committee. Frist, himself a medical doctor, was born rich, and got richer, from a family business that committed criminal fraud--the Health Corporation of America, which is the largest for-profit hospital chain in the country, with a criminal history I have documented for the L.A. Weekly. Dr. Frist's money comes from defrauding Medicaid, Medicare, and Tricare (the federal program covering the military and their families). Coming from Fraud-boy Frist, pretensions of concern for a "right to life" are particularly vile. As to DeLay, he'd much rather wave the "right to life" flag in front of Schiavo's sightless eyes to distract voters from his own spavined ethics as the most corrupt man in Washington and the multiple investigations of which he is now a target. The Republican party would much rather have people talking about Schiavo than about their proposed destruction of Social Security, or their cutting the budget for children's health care, which will cause some of those kids denied medical attention to die. Much better to try to force medical attention on a woman who, as she made clear to her husband, doesn't want it.

In jumping into the Schiavo case, the Republicans are simply once again engaging in crass pandering to the Taliban of the religious right--which has coalesced around this case--in an attempt to win votes by extending the grip of theocracy on our country. And as Schiavo's husband's attorney said moments ago on CNN, there was no congressional investigation--it was trumped up by the Republicans to grab headlines, by interfering in a particular case to prolong the torture by forcing a patient to submit to medical care she had previously said she did not want. This, as Felos said, was "thuggery"--and it could happen to you. The attempts to prolong Schiavo's life against her will, and that of her husband, are cruel and unusual punishment.

Schiavo's husband, who has fought for seven years for her right to die, seems by all accounts to be a loving partner of the kind we would all wish to have. As a profile of Michael Schiavo by ABC News reported, in 1990, after "doctors determined that Terri had entered a persistent vegetative state, Michael flew Terri to California for experimental surgical treatments, sleeping on a cot in her hospital room.

"Even after doctors in California determined surgery would do nothing to help Terri, Michael continued to seek help. He admitted Terri to a Florida brain-injury center and hired an aide to take her out to parks and museums, in the hope it might stimulate her reawakening. It didn't....

"With his wife in a nursing home, Michael began taking classes in health care at St. Petersburg Junior College. He eventually became a certified respiratory therapist and a registered nurse. Michael today works in an emergency room at a hospital in Florida.

"He has said his own mother's death from cancer helped him come to terms with death and dying. In 1998, Michael began to petition the court for the removal of the feeding tube that had kept Terri alive for eight years...." An admirable fellow, it would certainly seem.

I have long believed that the right to die with dignity to avoid pain and decay is a legitimate personal choice: Every person his own Kevorkian, that's my motto. I have a living will and a medical power of attorney in an attempt to make sure I will not suffer a fate like Schiavo's: fifteen years of torture imprisoned in a functionless body. But there have been any number of studies -- including one sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation -- showing that living wills are honored by hospitals only about half the time. Hospital administrators are often afraid of lawsuits by religiously-minded members of a patient's family who wish to substitute their beliefs for the patient's. (AIDS has made the right-to-die issue particularly critical for gay people, who--because they cannot marry and therefore have no legal standing--have no voice in ending their partner's suffering when all hope is gone, and are often over-ruled by parents.) Many medical practitioners are cowards who don't want the responsibility of honoring a patient's expressed wish to die. Others--an increasing number--arrogate to themselves the right to deny medical care (like medically necessary abortions), or withdraw artificial life support, because they feel sucn actions violate their personal religious beliefs . And the Congressional Republicans' actions today are also designed to terrorize even more doctors into disregarding living wills. The invasion of the health care field by rampant theocracy even extends to pharmacists, who are refusing to fill prescriptions for medications that prevent conception and other drugs to which any citizen has a presumptive right.

This interference with a human being's right to die, and not to be forced to undergo a prolonged simulacrum of life against their will, should be unacceptable in a civilized society. But your only way of being sure your right to die will be respected is to back up your living will with other means of ending your life, if you can find a loyal, loving relative or friend who will administer them to you should you be in a physical state in which you cannot do so yourself.  If you wish to take precautions to be sure you can avoid unnecessary and unwanted pain and suffering, you should visit the website of End of Life Choices, which combines a number of organizations, including the Hemlock Society, that work for the right to a dignified death.

And you should act on attorney Felos's superb, heartfelt appeal on CNN this afternoon: write your Senators and Congressmen and insist that the specter of forced medical care exacted by vote-seeking politicians be forbidden by law. Tell them that you will not tolerate their barbaric interference with your right to die. Because the spectacle we've witnessed in the last 24 hours on Capitol Hill in the Schiavo case shows that it is Congress which is also in a vegetative state.

P.S. In response to a Florida judge's order this afternoon to remove Schiavo's artificial feeding tube--which was done in the presence of her doctors, despite the Republican Congress's threats of prison terms for them--Tom DeLay just announced, live on CNN at 5:51, that the Republican-controlled House "will pass on Monday" a new bill to keep Schiavo alive. That makes it even more urgent you let your representatives know now that you are opposed to this totalitarian interference with a decision that should be solely personal and medical.

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