The Bush brothers sign away our right to decide

October 27, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - This is a tale of two signatures, each bearing the Bush penmanship. It's a tale of two bills that allow legislatures to trump a family, a doctor, a patient, a court. And it's a tale of what it means, when push comes to shove, to lose the right to make complicated decisions about life and death.

The first of these signatures, Gov. Jeb Bush's, is on a law rushed through the Florida House and Senate with all the speed and none of the expertise of a trauma team in an emergency room.

The object of their attention was Terri Schiavo, a young woman who suffered a heart attack 13 years ago that left her in a condition doctors describe, in a terrible dehumanized phrase, as a persistent vegetative state. At 26, Terri had no living will. Without any written words, her husband and parents gradually became enemies, bitter opponents in a struggle over her fate.

On one side, the devastated parents believed that she could, would, should live - even with a feeding tube. They took videos of their daughter apparently smiling, grunting, moaning, and showed them to the country, pleading her case.

On the other side, Terri's husband, Michael, believed that his wife didn't want to live in this state. Indeed, the doctors said her smiles were reflexes, not conscious emotions. Michael believed he was following his wife's desire - not his own - to end her life. The courts, one after another, affirmed his view of her wishes.

But when the feeding tube was removed, when the death scene became a national spectacle, the Florida Legislature did something unprecedented. It gave a politician the power to override Terri Schiavo's own wishes, as the courts saw them, and have the tube reinserted.

Now imagine, if you will, having a state official control the fate of your wife or yourself. Even the state Senate president who voted to give this right to Jeb Bush had second thoughts. "I keep on thinking," he said, "what if Terri didn't want this to happen at all?" What indeed?

Meanwhile in Washington, in some odd synchrony, a bill banning so-called partial-birth abortions finally passed Congress. It will be signed with great fanfare and political hoopla by Brother George when he gets back to the White House.

A ban that took eight years to crawl its way through the Capitol is the great PR victory for the right-to-life movement. From the beginning, it was a deliberate effort to change the terms of the abortion debate.

By the early 1990s, the abortion rights movement had successfully shaped the political argument on abortion around the question: Who decides? To this day, when pollsters ask whether a woman and her doctor should make this hard choice, or the government should, 80 percent of all Americans - including half of those who call themselves pro-life - side with the woman.

So the right-to-lifers regeared the debate to an ambivalent middle uneasy with later abortions. With gruesome details and inflammatory language, they began a bald effort to ban abortion one procedure at a time.

The ban of one small procedure might not sound alarming. But the telling moment in this long debate was when the anti-abortion lobby refused to permit an exemption to protect the health of the woman. So now we have a law telling doctors for the first time that they cannot pick the procedure they regard as safest for the patient. Congress, not the doctor, will say which treatment is legal and which is a prescription for jail.

Stories like these, stories about the end of life and the beginning of life, raise grave moral questions. Both of these debates, over pregnant women and comatose patients, take place in the touchy gray areas: What is consciousness? What is a woman required to sacrifice for a fetus?

These two tales also remind us of life experiences we hope never to face. The gasp of a woman who finds that her pregnancy has gone terribly awry. The pain of a family with a parent, child, stuck in that horrific space between life and death.

Will these signature bills pass constitutional muster? Maybe not. Not yet. Indeed, Congress knowingly passed a law similar to a Nebraska law that the Supreme Court had already declared too broad, too vague.

But they remind us that the "right to decide" is not some political slogan, not some second-tier ethical concern. It's at the center of personal freedom.

It is a deeply troubling moment when a stranger, a governor, a legislator, a president is given the power to write the end of our ethical, medical, family tales. Yes, this is how we lose our freedoms: One signature at a time.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe and appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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