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Religious Right Emboldened by Florida Right-to-Die Dispute

Emboldened by a legislative win in a battle to keep a brain-damaged Florida woman alive, religiously conservative political activists are hoping similar tactics will allow them to challenge court rulings they oppose in other states as well.

“It’s like the first kid to stand up to a bully in a courtyard,” Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry said in the New York Times of efforts by religious conservatives to influence Florida legislators to overturn a judge’s order to remove a feeding tube that has kept a Pinellas Park, Fla., woman alive for 13 years. “That kid might get beat up, but he is going to inspire courage in the rest of the kids on the playground to stand up to the bully.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
A five-year legal battle over the plight Terri Schiavo–pitting her husband, <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Michael, who says she should be allowed to die, against her parents, who are fighting to keep her alive–only recently made it into the mainstream media.
 
But Christian talk-radio hosts like Janet Parshall, Sean Hannity, Jane Chastain and Janet Fogler have been covering the story for months, igniting a grass-roots campaign that led to Florida’s governor and legislative leaders being flooded with e-mails, phone calls and letters.
 
“Like the tens of thousands of Floridians who have raised their voices in support of Terri Schiavo’s right to live, I have been deeply moved by these tragic circumstances,” Gov. Jeb Bush said, issuing an executive order Tuesday to reinsert Schiavo’s feeding tube. As of late August, Bush said his office had received 27,000 e-mails about the case.
 
Bush’s order came a day after Florida’s Legislature passed a rushed measure known as “Terri’s Law.” It placed a moratorium on removing food and water from patients who did not give advance written directives when members of the patient’s family cannot agree on appropriate medical care.
 
Legal scholars question the constitutionality of the bill, because it was written to apply to one person, which normally would be attacked as denying equal protection and due process. It also is retroactive and seeks to undo a judicial action, apparently violating the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches.
 
Others accused the Legislature of treating Schiavo’s life like a political football in order to court pro-life voters. Both House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who spearheaded the bill in the House, and Sen. Daniel Webster, who led the effort on the Senate side, are running in the Republican primary to succeed democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who has not said whether he will seek re-election for a fourth term.
 
Michael Schiavo’s lawyer described the 39-year-old woman as “literally being abducted from her deathbed and death process.”
 
The religious right, meanwhile, counted it as a win in a long and contentious right-to-die case.
 
The Family Research Council cheered Oct. 21 as a “monumental day for the sanctity of human life,” not only for the outcome in Florida but also for a vote the same day by the U.S. Senate banning “partial birth” abortion.
 
Joni Eareckson Tada, an evangelical Christian and quadriplegic, said she views the case as “Roe v. Wade for people with disabilities.”
 
Religious broadcaster James Dobson called it a victory by pro-life forces, which he said speaks volumes about the power of Christians to influence their government.
 
“There is a growing crescendo of concern across the country,” Dobson said Wednesday. “I have a radio program that’s heard on 2,000 stations across North America and we talked about it this morning and asked people to call—and we weren’t the only ones. A lot of (broadcasters) in Florida, and many other radio stations and television stations around the country, have been asking for a response and people have responded in massive numbers.”
 
Along with their legal battle to keep their daughter alive, Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler of Gulf Port, Fla., have waged a public-relations war that includes a Web site, terrisfight.org, which carries images they believe show that she is not in a persistent vegetative state, as her doctors claim.
 
In videos, Schiavo appears to smile, grunt and groan in response to her mother’s voice and follow a balloon with her eyes. Doctors, however, say the gestures are involuntary and not a sign of cognitive function.
 
Florida Southern Baptists jumped on the bandwagon, with a Florida Baptist Witness editorial publishing the address of a judge hearing a case over appointing a new guardian for Schiavo and urging letters from “thousands of other Floridians who share the governor’s concern about the sanctity of human life.”
 
Bill Bunkley, legislative consultant for the Florida Baptist Convention, is monitoring the case.
 
Terri Schiavo has been in what doctors call a “persistent vegetative state” since 1990, when her heart stopped beating because of a chemical imbalance. She is able to breath on her own, but she cannot eat and must be fed artificially through a feeding tube in order to survive.
 
The tube was removed a week ago after a court refused to interfere with her husband’s wishes. Doctors expected her to die within seven to 10 days without nutrition or water, before Florida’s Senate voted 23-15 for legislation Tuesday to save her. The House voted 73-24 to send the bill to Gov. Bush, who signed it into law and issued his order about an hour later.
 
Terri Schiavo’s father said action by the Florida Legislature “restored my belief in God.”
 
The continuing dispute over Schiavo’s guardianship is expected to be decided by the Supreme Court of Florida, possibly as soon as the next three weeks, according to legal experts cited by Newsday
 
The American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday it will aid Michael Schiavo in his battle against Gov. Bush and the legislature, according to the Florida Sun-Sentinel. The director of Florida’s ACLU said the group had resisted meddling in the dispute before, but intervention by the governor changed the landscape.
 
Michael Schiavo says his wife would rather be allowed to die than kept alive artificially, though she didn’t write it down in a living will.
 
Her parents say their daughter could still recover if given therapy and rehabilitation that her husband has denied her. They say one possible motive for his desire to let her die is that he wants to remarry.
 
Both sides accuse the other of being motivated by a $1 million-plus medical malpractice award from doctors who failed to diagnose the chemical imbalance that caused her heart failure.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.