Congress’ Exploitation of Terri Schiavo

The Terri Schiavo case has become a rallying cry for various interest groups around the country. For bioethicists, Terri Schiavo reminds us that a democratic society must always raise questions about what constitutes life and death in a changing world advanced by technology. For those with disabilities, she is an important image to remind all Americans that the disabled should not be treated differently. And for a Republican right-wing Congress, Schiavo is an opportunistic image and a martyr being used to advance a “pro-life” political agenda and, surprisingly, to violate the “sanctity of marriage.”

We live in an era of a reactionary Congress, where the lines between church and state, and between public and private spheres, are as fickle as what is said about New England weather: If you don’t like it, just wait a minute. So in this context I ask, what is the “sanctity of marriage”? And how does the Schiavo case impact the marriage equality battles being waged by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people across the country?

No one envies Michael Schiavo’s misfortune of having a spouse slip into a permanent vegetative state, a condition Terri had been in for 15 years. No one envies Michael’s domestic dispute with his in-laws who state their daughter is not terminally ill but merely disabled. And no one envies Michael having to defend Terri’s wishes not to remain in such a condition against Terri’s parents, who equate Michael’s court battle to remove Terri’s feeding tube with murder.

In a letter to the editor of Boston Metro, J. Brown wrote “Do the parents have the right to go against Mrs. Schiavo’s husband? . . . While I feel for any parent who is losing or lost a loved one, the institution of marriage does not include them directly. They need to back off.”

We live in an era of a reactionary Congress, where the lines between church and state, and between public and private spheres, are as fickle as what is said about New England weather: If you don’t like it, just wait a minute. So in this context I ask, what is the “sanctity of marriage”?

Legal kinship is of paramount importance to LGBTQ people, and its interest heightened with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when we had no legal recourse to hospital visitations and decisions about the medial treatment of our loved ones. Unfortunately, these matters were usually handled by our loved ones’ parents, who were often homophobic and showed blatant disregard for their children’s long-term same-sex relationships. Now, with LGBTQ people sharing households and raising children, marriage becomes the legal means to keep contentious in-laws, bureaucratic institutions like hospitals, and homophobic churches from barring us from our loved ones. In other words, marriage is how we keep them out of our business.

However, the legal requirement of the “sanctity of marriage” continues to bar most LGBTQ people — and keeps our business debated in the public sphere. Heterosexual marriage is so important to George W. Bush and his cohorts that he proclaimed the week of Oct. 12-18, 2003, as “Marriage Protection Week.” Bush wrote in his proclamation, “Marriage is a sacred institution, and its protection is essential to the continued strength of our society. Marriage Protection Week provides an opportunity to focus our efforts on preserving the sanctity of marriage and on building strong and healthy marriages in America. Marriage is a union between a man and a woman, and my administration is working to support the institution of marriage by helping couples build successful marriages and be good parents.”

Informed by antiquated biblical doctrines and supported by a conservative intolerance for change, inclusion and social justice, Bush’s preservation of marriage is an anti-family, and anti-American, proclamation in light of a constantly changing world.

But wait. What about the Schiavo case? Michael Schiavo’s business has now become a national debate, thus eclipsing the main issue — which is the legality and sanctity of his marriage to his wife Terri.

The argument in the Schiavo case has been that of “pro-lifers” depicting Michael as a money-hungry and murderous husband who is willing to kill his wife with the help of “activist” judges. However, if pro-lifers and Congress really cared about and valued the intrinsic worth of all of God’s people with the same righteous zeal they have for Terri Schiavo they would also: advocate for better nursing care for the infirm and elderly while they are conscious; address the egregious racial disparity in America’s health care system; vigorously fund educational initiatives to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS; support embryonic stem cell research; deplore the death penalty; and stop the wars in Iraqi and Afghanistan.

The hypocrisy of DeLay and the FRC is best highlighted by the case of Wanda Hudson, an African-American single mother in Texas who through mid-March fought for her infant son to remain on life support. That issue certainly didn’t hit the national radar screen.

Instead, pro-lifers and Congress exploit a painful and intimate family matter for political gains guised as both biblical and judicial laws in this country. For example, Republican Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, sees his mission as an elected official to bring a biblical worldview to American politics. At a conference last month sponsored by the right-wing Family Research Council (FRC), DeLay said that “God had brought Terri Schiavo’s struggle to the forefront to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America.”

Tony Perkins, president of the FRC, released a special publication, “The Terri Schiavo Controversy — Facts, Myths and Christian Perspectives,” stating: “This is a right to life case. Terri is living, not dying. There is no ‘right to die’ under the constitution or under any moral claim. Life is a gift given by God and should only be taken by God or his naturally ordained process of death. As obvious as it may seem, one needs to look no further then the ten commandments for the timeless and controlling moral principle to guide the outcome in this case: ‘Thou shall not kill.’”

The hypocrisy of DeLay and the FRC is best highlighted by the case of Wanda Hudson, an African-American single mother in Texas who through mid-March fought for her infant son to remain on life support. That issue certainly didn’t hit the national radar screen. But in order to make a martyr out of Terri Schiavo and score political points, Congress convened on Palm Sunday to pass a law that incredulously (and perhaps unconstitutionally) only applies to one person. And had Congress polled the American public before it intruded itself in one family’s personal tragedy, Congress would have known that 82 percent opposed their meddling in the case, according to CBS News.

In the end, however, if marriage is such a sacred institution, then Congress and the Religious Right should uphold Jesus’ mandate — that includes all people across race, class, gender expression and sexual orientation — stated in Matthew 19:6: “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” And when Congress and its cohorts’ religious rhetoric doesn’t work to promulgate their political agenda, then they should remember that in a democratic society the business of Congress is to protect all the people — and to stay out of our personal affairs.

Comments are closed.