Activists hope to keep up momentum

Groups seek to take on other `right to life' issues

`Allowed ... doors to be opened'

Private Tragedy, Public Uproar

April 01, 2005|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - The Rev. Ed Martin does not want to squander the attention that the Terri Schiavo case has given his cause. In the month the anti-abortion activist spent outside the hospice housing the severely brain-damaged woman, he has given his business card - emblazoned with a logo of an adult hand protectively holding a baby - to every reporter who has approached him.

In the wake of Schiavo's death, protesters like Martin are trying to hold on to the national media contacts they made while demonstrating outside the hospice, hoping to use their outrage over the Florida woman's death as fuel for future activism. For the groups joined together on this case - anti-abortion protesters, disability rights advocates, euthanasia opponents - the aim is to keep the issues alive after her death.

"We have to go into the political realm and get the right elected officials in office who will fight the people in favor of `death with dignity,'" said Martin, 59, an Ocala, Fla., activist who spends most of his days demonstrating outside abortion clinics.

Chet Gallagher, 55, who was arrested dozens of times during Operation Rescue anti-abortion protests, sees the fight over right-to-die issues as the next logical extension of his activism. "It's the same alliance of all of us who were active in the Rescue movement in the '80s," he said.

In many ways this is an old alliance of religious conservatives who usually band together on cultural and political issues. This group is undaunted by polls showing that a majority of Americans supported Michael Schiavo's decision to have his wife's feeding tube removed. They say the survey questions were tilted against their cause.

With this latest cause comes, they hope, new momentum, broadening their movement to a spectrum of "right to life" issues.

"This situation allowed so many doors to be opened on the culture of life," said Lanier Swann, a lobbyist for the conservative Concerned Women for America. "It is our hope and our understanding that Congress will continue to dig deeper into this."

But there's no clear picture of where such activism goes now that demonstrators are packing up their tents, the media is heading home and many Americans are expressing relief that this sad and troubling look inside a divided family is finally over. And for a group so diverse that demonstrators outside the hospice sometimes fought with each other, rather than their right-to-die opponents, the alliance is hardly ironclad.

Protesters in wheelchairs joined the rally outside Woodside Hospice, arguing along with the anti-abortion crowd for the reinsertion of Schiavo's feeding tube. But several took offense at religious activists over their support of abortion rights and over language some felt was patronizing.

"They were praying for our healing, and I told them I don't need to be healed, thank you very much - it's this whole ideology that we're not OK as we are," said Carol Cleigh, 50, who came here from North Carolina with supplemental oxygen and a mobilized wheelchair.

But most protesters on the Schiavo case agree that "persistent vegetative state" and "minimally conscious state" are terms open to vast interpretation. They want patients without a living will to have government protections in case their relatives are coerced into terminating their lives. Cleigh said she hopes the case brings attention to problems that stem from what she calls the "better dead than disabled" attitude.

After collapsing 15 years ago, Schiavo had been in what doctors called a persistent vegetative state, meaning she was incapable of registering or vocalizing thought. But Schiavo's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, said they saw signs of emotion and cognition and fought their daughter's legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, who said his wife had told him she would never want to live on artificial life support.

Schiavo died yesterday after 13 days without food or water.

Now some conservatives hope to fight end-of-life issues on Capitol Hill, and some lawmakers are expected to promote legislation that would give new legal options to patients like Schiavo. Conservatives also hope to maintain the alliance with disability rights groups and even some Democratic lawmakers.

There's also some talk of enlisting senior citizens in the end-of-life fight.

"You've got these talking heads saying it's OK to euthanize someone as long as it's painless and it's OK if someone's profoundly disabled to throw them over the side," said Ken Connor, chairman of the conservative group Center for a Just Society. "You can imagine the shock waves that is going to send people in long-term care institutions."

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