A Culture of Life?

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice / Coldtype (etc.) 4/7/05


As governor of Texas in 1999, George W. Bush signed the Texas Futile Care Law. This bill allows the state to remove life support from patients like Terri Schiavo, despite their stated wishes or religious beliefs, or those of their families, as long as the state unilaterally determines such life support as “futile.”

More recently, Bush cut short his vacation to fly back to Washington on the government’s dime to sign another bill concerning an end-of-life issue. This time he signed an unprecedented federal bill into law allowing federal courts to review the decision to stop force feeding Terri Schiavo. In signing the bill, he told the world, “It is always wise to err on the side of life.” As Bush and his fellow Republicans grandstanded on the Schiavo issue, however, a Texas hospital invoked the 1999 bill that Bush signed into law to force the removal of a breathing tube from a fatally ill six-month old child against his family’s will. In the Schiavo case, the Republicans were hoping for divine intervention – a miraculous return to cognizance for a severely brain-damaged woman who has been diagnosed as being in a “persistent vegetative state” for 15 years. In the case of the six-month old, there was no miracle on the horizon. Or perhaps, more pragmatically, there was no health insurance. Clearly, the hypocrisy of the Republican mafia is breathtaking.

Putting Schiavo Out by the Curb

We really can’t overlook the financial concerns at play here. The medical industry is eager to plunder any financial estate associated with a comatose body. By the same account, they’re eager to cut loose any indigent patient. Hence, Bush’s sudden reverence for miraculous “life” and his 1999 support for pragmatic medical realism aren’t, in fact, contradictory. They both support an industry that wants to milk financially viable bodies while simultaneously ditching those incapable of providing a revenue stream. When Medicaid is gutted, patients like Schiavo will fall into this latter category. These two Bush bills, put together, eventually will mean well off families can indulge their tormented fantasies – forever paying for the unachievable quack cure or miracle – while poor families soon to be cut from Medicaid lose their rights to make any such end-of-life decisions for themselves. Nursing homes get to milk the able-to-pay while hospitals cut their losses with the poor.

The whole financial story here presents another instance of Republican hypocrisy. Most families in Schiavo’s situation would be pauperized from medical bills and dependent upon the very Medicaid program that the Republicans are hoping to gut. The current bills for maintaining Schiavo’s body are, in fact, paid by Medicaid. Without Medicaid covering the cost of maintaining Schiavo’s body, nobody would be having this debate. Of course for years Schiavo wasn’t dependent upon Medicaid since her family won a malpractice lawsuit that covered many of her expenses. Again, under the proposed Republican caps to malpractice and corporate liability suits, Schiavo’s body again would be out by the curb.

Sleeping Lawyers

The Nation responded to Bush’s sanctimonious “err on the side of life” line with a “tell that to Karla Faye Tucker” jab. Tucker was a Texas woman executed under Bush’s watch as governor after he ridiculed her appeal to him for clemency – mocking her “please… don’t kill me” plea during a press interview.

Erring on the side of life also didn’t stop Bush from signing the death warrants for 150 Texas convicts and overseeing the introduction of the first federal executions in over a generation (including the executions of at least two Gulf War veterans) – even though studies show that roughly seven percent of death row inmates were falsely convicted. That number is likely higher in Texas, where The New York Times reports that court appointed lawyers representing subsequently condemned clients tried cases under the influence of cocaine and alcohol, or fell asleep during trial. The Chicago Tribune reports that one third of the convicts sentenced to death under Bush’s watch in Texas were represented by attorneys who were either sanctioned or later disbarred. In 29 of these cases, the Texas courts allowed testimony from prosecution psychiatrists who predicted the defendants would commit future violent acts – even though the psychologists never actually examined the defendants. In 40 cases, the court-appointed lawyers presented no evidence or only one witness during the sentencing phase of the trials.

Falsely and potentially falsely convicted death row inmates, however, can talk, think and feed themselves. They’re not being allowed to die a natural death – they’re being forcibly restrained and executed. Judicially, however, they might as well be in a persistent vegetative state. For some folks who call themselves “pro-life,” a woman in a coma with a diaper and a teddy bear provides a more sympathetic iconographic figure than a convict in a cage. I guess they’re not pro all life.

DeLay the Inevitable

Then there’s Tom DeLay. He’s been a real strong supporter of Schiavo’s parents – arguing that removing Schiavo’s mechanical feeding tube would be “an act of barbarism.” Of course he didn’t feel quite this way 17 years ago when his own father, after a freak accident, was also in a persistent vegetative state. After a few weeks (not 15 years), DeLay and his family accepted the reality of his father’s situation and elected to remove artificial life support, letting him slip into a natural death. DeLay, a leader in the current Republican fight to limit consumers’ rights to sue corporations over faulty products, also chose to sue a ball bearing manufacturer whose bearings DeLay’s dad used in the homemade contraption (a tram to scale a 200 foot drop) that killed him. I guess DeLay’s family got their peace and their money – the Schiavos and everyone else be damned. Of course, that is, everyone but Tom DeLay be damned. DeLay is currently facing a perfect storm of ethics charges (see my previous column). A sweet little diversion focusing the nation’s attention on the picayune, of course, can’t hurt.

DeLay, Bush and the Republican team also take a strong rhetorical stance against what they term “judicial activism.” Technically, this term would describe the act of misinterpreting the law in order to further a stated outcome (such as the 2000 Supreme Court decision to stop the Florida recount). In the Republican lexicon, however, it means render null any decision in opposition to the Republican/Fox News stance of the day. No matter how you describe it, pushing legislation through congress in order to thwart a duly arrived at court decision and hijack a case into a friendlier jurisdiction would seem to fall into this realm. Pressuring the court to arrive at a certain decision contrary to the law would also seem to be an attempt to game the judicial system in favor of a certain outcome. With Bush proposing a slew of outcome-oriented judicial nominations, this tacit support for judicial activism should unmask the GOP’s agenda to hijack the federal courts. 

Judge Judy Rules

The Republicans, over the years, have defined themselves as relentless supporters of states’ rights. This support, however, seems conditioned on exactly what specific rights it is that states want. Republicans have historically supported, for example, the right of states to reject federal civil rights legislation. More recently they’ve supported the right of states to pass their own homophobic laws limiting marriage rights, and granting environmental plunder rights to corporate campaign donors. In 2000, however, they showed their hypocrisy by invoking the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule the Florida Supreme Court and halt the counting of presidential ballots in that state. This year, they pushed it further by passing a law giving Schiavo’s parents the right to usurp state courts and bring their case into federal court. If applied to other cases, this law would in effect negate the rights of states to run their own judiciaries with any more authority than Judge Judy’s TV court.

Finally, there’s the ultimate hypocrisy here – the gall of the Republicans to pretend to be in any way “pro-life.” Yes, they’re grabbing headlines trying to “save” a woman who many medical ethicists argue actually died 15 years ago. At the same time their cuts to public health programs will leave hundreds of thousands of impoverished children without proper medical care. Their weakening of environmental regulations promises to further poison our environment and lead to countless cancer deaths and other illnesses. They’re cutting nutrition programs. They’re cutting funding to education programs that allow poor children aspire to a better life. They’re cutting heating assistance programs that provide indigent households with heat. They’re cutting funds to combat homelessness. And they’re doing all of this to the most vulnerable Americans so that they can cut taxes for the richest Americans – all under the disproven Reaganite theory that the hedonistic consumption of the rich will trickle economic benefits upon the poor. In actuality these programs are resulting in the deaths of the most vulnerable Americans who aren’t getting the nutrition, medical care or shelter they need to live healthy lives. This is not a “pro-life” policy by any means.

These Bastards Are Not Pro-Life

Then there’re the wars. Perhaps, as a study in the British medical journal Lancet argues, over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the Bush administration’s latest war (I went over all of these bloody numbers in my last column). My point is that these bastards are not pro-life! Do not be fooled. No matter where you stand on issues such as abortion and end-of-life decisions, do not let the Bush team lead you about by your emotions. It’s time for some serious thinking – this is especially true for people who consider themselves to be pro-life while supporting the bloodiest American administration in over a generation.

ęCopyright 2005

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