Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The trials of Jeb Bush

Paul O’Donnell took Jeb Bush to task on Sunday. A woman is being systematically and deliberately killed, he said. It is time to set aside the legalisms and use your executive powers to save a life. Leave the consequences for later, this is a time to act. O’Donnell, a Roman Catholic priest and spiritual advisor to the Schindler family cut to the chase. You have embraced this family's cause, you have chosen to ride the whirlwind, it is time to stand up and be counted.

If Jeb Bush believes what the family believes and has recounted to the media, he has no choice but to act. Terri Schindler has been described by Tom DeLay as lucid and by Bill Frist as responsive. Her father suggested yesterday that she is aware and trying to talk. Only days ago, her mother exclaimed that her daughter spoke to her and pleaded for her life.

If this is the truth and Jeb Bush believes it to be so, he must act. No court order can justify allowing a woman who is conscious and aware to be denied nutrition and hydration. But Jeb Bush does not believe these statements. Jeb Bush believes the medical testimony, which contradicts the family’s claims, and indicates that all cognitive brain activity ceased years long ago.

Jeb Bush has only begun to feel the sting of his embrace of the Schindler-Schiavo affair. Three quarters of Americans polled understand that this was a private matter that should have been left a private matter. Congress had no business getting involved, and the President and Congressional leaders who led this charge have been rightly seen to have acted for political advantage, whatever degree of sincerity also may have influenced their actions.

The politicians who rushed to embrace this family’s tragedy are guilty of the most egregious form of pandering for political gain. The abject cynicism shown over the past few weeks in the name of winning the hearts and minds of the social conservative base of the Republican Party has led even the staunchest pundits from the other side of the aisle to shake their heads in wonder. Bill Frist, in pursuit of primary support for his coming presidential bid threw medical ethics aside as he practiced distance medicine from the well of the Senate. Tom DeLay sought the support of social conservative groups by equating in God’s eyes DeLay’s suffering at the hands of the House Ethics Committee and his Democrat rivals with Terri Schiavo’s end of life struggle.

The President’s admonition to those involved in the Shiavo tragedy to “err on the side of life,” has left his brother and others in his party, to say nothing of himself, vulnerable to being viewed as cynical at best and deeply hypocritical at worst. For the Schindler family and Father O’Donnell, what is at issue is not the nature of the medical diagnosis or even the niceties of legal process, but the simple fact that she remains alive. Their statement is simple and compelling: if she can live with nutrition and hydration, she should be allowed to live. To cease medical intervention is not the same as denying nutrition and hydration. It is hard to quarrel with the humanity of that standard.

Jeb Bush has found himself trapped between those who demand that he demonstrate moral courage and intervene, and his own unwillingness to act in an extra-judicial manner. By failing to act, he is demonstrating that his support of the family was more calculating than sincere. Father O’Donnell knows what he is doing. He knows that Bush sought political advantage in championing the cause of the Schindler family, and saw the cynicism of his embrace in the moment the “culture of life” rhetoric. O'Donnell demanded that Bush act with the courage of his stated convictions, while knowing full well that he would not.

The Schiavo case has unearthed the deep fault line between morality and faith, and the task of governing in a democracy. Jeb Bush, as Governor, routinely makes decisions that affect end of life care. To say it more bluntly, governors and legislators routinely make laws and pass budgets that do not err on the side of life. Just this month, the Miami Herald reported on an investigation into the deaths of four disabled Floridians in the wake of budget cuts and resulting changes in nursing care for disabled residents.

At the same time, in Texas, the Texas Advance Directive Act signed into law by the President Bush when he was governor provides a legal process for ending life support––for ending life–––even when it is against the wishes of the family in the event of an inability to pay the cost of continuing care.

The task of governing demands that our leaders make hard decisions. If "erring on the side of life" is to be set as the standard, the President and his brother should stand to account first for their own actions, before judging others. In this case, there was no need for action by Congress or for the national spotlight to be focused on the Schiavo tragedy, and the public understood this immediately. Perhaps in this case the blind pursuit of political advantage will rebound against those who found themselves eager to talk the talk, but who were unwilling to walk the walk. This cynical hypocrisy is the true target of Father O’Donnell’s words.

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