I thought “The Passion of The Christ” came out last year.
Terri Schiavo, the 41-year-old Florida woman who has been in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) for some 15 years, may not bear a physical resemblance to Jesus. But the way in which a valued electoral constituency — the religious right — has portrayed these two individuals makes the current cultural role of Schiavo uncannily similar to that of Mel Gibson’s Christ.
It is doubtful that Schiavo, who was a secretary for an insurance company before the 1990 seizure that rendered her vegetative, wished to be a martyr for the “right to life” movement. But martyr she has become. Following Florida Circuit Court Judge George W. Greer’s Thursday ruling essentially ordering the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube — the only thing keeping her alive — the religious right’s shamelessness has reached new heights. In its perpetual quest to portray Democrats as murderers and baby-killers, it has fetishized Schiavo much like Gibson did the death of Christ in his two-hour gorefest of 2004. Thanks to a horde of social conservatives with an agenda to push, this poor woman — who did not ask to be the flash point of a national debate — has become a cynical prop.
As if the political purpose of this farce were not clear enough, a leaked GOP memo should erase any doubt. The one-page strategy statement, sent to Republican senators and obtained by The Washington Post, stated that the personal suffering of the Schiavo family “is a great political issue,” and singled out Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson as a political target because “he has already refused to become a co-sponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats.”
Last weekend, congressional Republicans rammed through legislation to allow Terri Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, to bring their case before a federal panel. This circumvention of the judicial system is something no American citizen, barring an act of Congress, can do. But an extra-judicial act that makes a mockery out of federalism should come as no surprise from this Republican Party. After all, it has no problem ignoring its supposed opposition to federal intrusion and has already demonstrated its disregard for the sacred nature of the Constitution by trying to pass a federal amendment banning gay marriage. National Republicans have simply taken a cue from their juniors in Florida, where in 2003 Gov. Jeb Bush signed “Terri’s Law,” which was passed by the Republican-dominated state legislature. This executive fiat voided a court judgment ordering that Schiavo’s tube be removed and was later deemed unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court on separation of powers grounds.
One in five American children lives in poverty. AIDS is killing Africans at a genocidal rate. But never mind, for these concerns do not raise the ire of Republicans and the “right to life” movement — unlike the case of an individual woman who has been kept alive for 15 years due solely to artificial means.
In more than a dozen cases, state courts have sided with Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, who is also her legal guardian. Nineteen judges have sat in adjudication over this case. A countless procession of medical specialists testified to Schiavo’s essentially lifeless condition of PVS, a condition in which, according to the National Institutes of Health, Schiavo “cannot think, speak or respond to commands,” and is “not aware of [her] surroundings.” Barring a miracle, there is no indication that Schiavo would ever be able to recover.
That House Republicans have tried to subpoena Terri Schiavo as a means of indefinitely delaying the tube removal aptly demonstrates the way in which her body is being tossed around as a literal political tool. Try to imagine Schiavo lying motionless in a hospital stretcher in a Capitol committee room with the cameras rolling, and you will understand how manipulative is the “Save Terri” cause. Such an event would be even more ridiculous than last week’s Government Reform Committee hearing on steroids in Major League Baseball — a spectacle contrived for the purposes of congressional grandstanding and letting Dennis Kucinich show off his Spanish.
The Schindlers have assembled quite a crew of extreme right-wing figures to advocate for their cause. Randall Terry, the founder of the anti-abortion fringe group Operation Rescue, has taken a temporary respite from threatening women outside family planning clinics to warn America of the hellfire that shall reign down upon it should we allow Terri Schiavo to die with whatever dignity she has retained after this tortuous, seven-year charade. Colonel Bo Gritz, one of the Christian Identity militia movement’s more colorful characters, was arrested Saturday for trespassing as he tried to enter Schiavo’s hospice, threatening to make “citizens’ arrests” against medical staff acting to remove her feeding tube. Judge Greer must be accompanied at all times by armed Sheriff’s deputies to protect him from the murderous desires of so-called “pro-life” advocates.
Essential for proponents of keeping Schiavo “alive” is the attempt to depict Michael Schiavo and those supporting him as nothing less than satanic. Tom DeLay, the Republican House majority leader, called Greer “barbaric” and Michael Schiavo’s attorney the “personification of evil.”
And who can argue with DeLay? He, after all, has God on his side.
James Kirchick is a junior in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.