Rest in peace, Terri

April 01, 2005

DEATH FINALLY CAME to Terri Schiavo yesterday, 15 years after the heart attack that effectively ended her normal life. Yet the cottage industry that sprang up to take advantage of her tragedy carries on.

The politicians, the pundits, the lawyers, the talk-show hosts, the cable networks, the self-appointed moralists, the protesters deluded by false hope and falsehoods refused to let go. They should apologize profusely for intruding into a bitter family dispute and making it immeasurably more painful.

Only the courts acquitted themselves with distinction in this ugly episode, resolving the family conflict according to the evidence and the law. For this, they were the targets of an ominous threat of retribution issued yesterday by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who bested a long list of rivals, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the brothers Bush, George W. and Jeb, in the transparency of his effort to use Mrs. Schiavo as a tool for self-promotion. Whenever a politician says, "It's not about politics," rest assured, it's about politics.

The circus-like atmosphere that surrounded the debate over removing the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube obscured the reality that similar decisions are made all over the country every day. Medical technology has given us the mixed blessing of maintaining a semblance of life after the ability to truly live has gone.

Some wild-eyed talk during the past few days focused on trying to make rigid new rules for such situations - in part to eliminate any role for the courts. But that makes little sense. Rules alone can't eliminate disputes; resolving disputes is what the courts are for. In the case of Terri Schiavo, the legal system worked as intended.

Of all the sad notes in this melodrama, perhaps the saddest is that so much energy and empathy were extended on behalf of a woman past help while the world is full of endangered people who could benefit mightily if that same effort and political pressure were applied on their behalf.

If the 24-7 news coverage, the prayer vigils and political outrage were focused, for example, on the murders and deaths by displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Darfur, enough pressure might be created to ease the conflict there and actually save some lives.

For Terri Schiavo, though, the struggle is over. The end came calmly with music and flowers and her husband at her side, as he said she would have chosen. It was a death with far more dignity and privacy than she was permitted in the final weeks of her life.

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