Beyond the Feeding Tube
Congress oversteps its bounds with Terri Schiavo—and sets a dangerous precedent
There is no need to take a stance on whether Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband, should have chosen to remove the feeding tube that has sustained his 41-year-old wife since she suffered devastating brain damage in 1990 to understand this point. Nor must one even agree with Florida’s (and every other state’s) law that leaves it up to the spouse to make the life-or-death decision for a permanently incapacitated partner who has not left a living will specifying a course of action. The salient point is that states have a right to enact such statutes, and it is for the state to assume responsibility for their decisions and deal with the consequences. Congress and President Bush overstepped their bounds early Monday morning when they granted Schiavo’s parents—who fervently disapprove of her husband’s decision to have the tube removed—the ability to take their case to the federal court system.
Not only is this action constitutionally dubious in its effective usurpation of states’ rights, but it sets a dangerous precedent of prolonging specific legal disputes outside of their proper arena. Politicization of court cases is inevitable to some degree, but the intrusion of legislative politics is nothing short of debilitating to the very independence of the judicial branch of government. In Sunday’s House of Representatives floor debate Rep. James D. Moran Jr., D-Va., wisely observed with regard to the Schiavo struggle, “I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong. But neither do my colleagues.” He added, “ten courts, and 19 judges all have reached the same conclusion [that the tube should be removed].”
Supporters of the legislation, such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., argue that it is a “unique bill” that will not serve as a precedent for future action. They are right in that the language of the act explicitly makes clear that it only applies to Schiavo and that it has no effect on contentious political issues such as “right to die,” abortion, and doctor-assisted suicides. They miss, however, that the very fact that Congress is legislating to affect the outcome of a state legal battle sets quite a precedent itself. The possibility of a legislative veto on every contentious state court case is a scary proposition indeed.
Particularly alarming is the fact that one of the leading forces behind the Schiavo legislation was the seemingly misnamed House Government Reform Committee. This is the same group that intruded into the internal affairs of Major League Baseball by forcing players and officials to testify at hearings last Thursday, which can only be aptly described as political grandstanding. If the committee charged with government reform instead focuses on its enlargement, and intrudes into the rights of states and independent organizations, we cannot take seriously claims that legislation can be made to apply to one individual without general repercussions.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., put it succinctly when he argued that supporters of the Schiavo bill “reject the fundamental precept of American government—namely that it’s a limited government.” Whether one loves or loathes Frank, it is clear that when the famously liberal congressman complains about too much government he likely has a point.