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Bush errs, but not on the side of life

Monday, March 28, 2005

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

Bush errs, but not on the side of life

Given George W. Bush’s well-documented propensity for taking extended vacations, it clearly takes a special issue to make him cut short his time away from “the hard work” of being President. Bush found that issue last week when he returned to Washington to sign a bill that could lead to a feeding tube being reinserted into the body of Terri Schiavo (at press time, the issue is still before the courts). Indeed, in an apparent tribute to Michael Jackson, he even made a point of having his handlers rouse him at 1:00 a.m. so that he could emerge in his pyjamas to sign the bill.

Schiavo is a Florida woman who has been kept alive through artificial means since a heart attack in 1990 robbed her brain of oxygen and left her in what is known legally as “a permanent vegetative state”. Courts have repeatedly determined that her husband, as her legal guardian, should be allowed to honour her wish to be allowed to die if she was ever in this kind of circumstance (a wish that, according to sworn testimony, she expressed not only to her husband, but also to her best friend, her uncle and her brother-in-law).

After he had changed into a suit, Bush spoke briefly to reporters and defended his intervention. “Always err on the side of life,” he pontificated. Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader and a fellow Texan, went even further in his hyperbole: “Mrs. Schiavo's life is not slipping away – it is being violently wrenched from her body in an act of medical terrorism… What is happening to her is not compassion – it is homicide. She doesn't need to die, and as long as Terri Schiavo can breathe and her supporters can pray, we will not rest.” There’s no question that Bush and Republican congressional leaders have erred, but they didn’t do so on the side of life. Moreover, their support of the legislation was both transparently political and wildly inconsistent with their actions in the past.

The real reason for the Republican interference in personal medical decisions affecting Terri Schiavo was contained in a confidential party briefing note (which even DeLay denounced as “disgusting” after it was leaked). According to the document, the tactical advantage of championing this issue is twofold: “the pro-life base will be excited…. (and) this is a great political issue… this is a tough issue for Democrats.”

They appear to have miscalculated where the American public is on this issue. An ABC News poll last week revealed that “87 percent of those surveyed said they would not want to be kept alive if in Schiavo's condition, and 65 percent said a spouse should have the final say in what happens to a patient, as opposed to parents.” As well, a CNN poll found that “56 per cent of Americans agree with the decision to remove the feeding tube – including 54 per cent of Republicans and 55 per cent of people who attend church at least monthly.”

But, when Bush was Governor of Texas, he signed precisely the kind of legislation that he now wants the federal government to override. The Texas Advance Directives Act (1999), would have placed any and all decisions relating to Mrs. Schiavo’s care or withdrawal of care in the hands of her husband. And, under the legislation, the feeding tube under dispute would have been removed long ago without any need to go to court. In one recent case in Houston, the law – which also allows doctors to consider the inability to pay for medical care when making life and death medical decisions – resulted in a baby boy’s feeding tube of being removed, contrary to the wishes of his mother. The baby died, but neither Bush nor DeLay appeared to notice or care (presumably, his case wasn’t “exciting” enough to merit their attention).

Of course, Bush never “erred on the side of life” when he had the authority to stop the executions of the 152 people that were killed by the State of Texas when he was Governor (that’s a record among U.S. Governor, though not one that should inspire any kind of pride). Relying on a Board of Pardons and Parole that allowed members to fax in their votes without ever having met or reviewed the details of the cases in question, Bush was only too happy to err repeatedly on the side of death. He vetoed legislation that would have reformed Texas’ arcane penal system, calling the bill “a threat to public safety”.

Interviewed by Talk Magazine after the execution of Karla Faye Tucker (one of his better known victims), Bush openly laughed at her ultimately futile pleas for clemency. “‘Please,’ Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don't kill me.’” It seems to me that any politician who was really concerned about “erring on the side of life” might not want to be cracking jokes about killing people. And, likewise, any politician who is truly opposed to life being “violently wrenched from bodies” might not be as staunch an advocate of the death penalty as DeLay is. Then again, consistency may not achieve the desired objective of “exciting the base”.


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