Florida's mob rule mentality

October 23, 2003

OUTSIDERS can't possibly know for sure whether Terri Schiavo, who was severely brain-damaged at 26, wanted to be kept alive indefinitely in a vegetative state.

But surely she would not choose to be at the center of a heart-wrenching legal battle between her loved ones over her care. And no one would want a personal tragedy to be crassly exploited for political gain as Mrs. Schiavo's has been in Florida.

Gov. Jeb Bush, House Speaker Johnnie B. Byrd Jr. and most of the state Legislature injected themselves into Mrs. Schiavo's case in a manner that was probably illegal, and certainly immoral. Only state Senate President James E. King Jr. seemed to have trouble with his conscience as the governor and lawmakers voided a court order removing Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube.

"I keep thinking, what if Terri didn't want this to happen at all? May God have mercy on all of us," Senator King said after the deed was done.

With 39-year-old Mrs. Schiavo back on a feeding tube, her fate is once again in the hands of the courts, which will next determine whether the Legislature exceeded its authority. But the sorry episode's impact is far broader.

The most obvious lesson to be drawn is that all those old enough to make such a decision should prepare written instructions for what they want done if they become incapacitated.

A living will, as such documents are called, won't guarantee those instructions are carried out if there is a dispute. But it will at least strengthen the case of a relative trying to honor those wishes.

Like most young people, Mrs. Schiavo hadn't prepared such a document before she collapsed 13 years ago and went into cardiac arrest. Thus, when her husband, Michael, gave up hope of her recovery and sought in 1998 to have her feeding tube removed, Mrs. Schiavo's parents challenged his assertion that she had told him she didn't want to be kept alive artificially.

What's really frightening, though, is the mob rule mentality that inspired Florida's Republican political leaders to intervene in a legal matter already settled in the courts - and the dangerous precedent it sets.

House Speaker Byrd, a U.S. Senate candidate, and Governor Bush, who'd like to succeed his brother in the White House, are both currying favor with religious conservatives in the GOP base. They were easy targets for a public relations campaign by Mrs. Schiavo's parents that used emotional appeals on cable TV and over the Internet to gin up support from tens of thousands of people around the world.

If this action stands, it will encourage further legislative attempts to overrule the courts, potentially wreaking havoc on the rule of law in this country.

Quality-of-life decisions are only going to become more difficult as medical technology advances. This is no time to undermine the judiciary's ability to help us make them.

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