Schiavo Case Causes Political Divisions



The case of Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged woman in Florida, has galvanized religious conservatives in the United States. But public opinion polls also suggest most Americans disagreed with the intervention in the case by the Republican-led U.S. Congress.

The family dispute over whether Terri Schiavo should live or die has drawn conservative Christians from around the country to her hospice in Florida. Many are strongly opposed to the arguments of the brain damaged woman's husband, who says she did not want to be kept alive through artificial means.

They have supported the effort by her parents to keep her alive despite repeated legal setbacks by state and federal courts that have refused to order the reinsertion of the feeding tube that had been keeping her alive.

"God have mercy," prayed the demonstrators. "In the Supreme Court it says 'equal justice under law.' Father, that is not true. And so Father, we beg for mercy for our country. Forgive us, oh God, we pray. How can we let this happen?"

The Schiavo case has galvanized religious conservatives like no other in recent memory, especially those involved in the anti-abortion movement or opposed to assisted suicide.

That grass roots support was felt in Congress when the Republican-led House of Representatives and Senate quickly moved to pass a law giving Terri Schiavo's parents the right to pursue their cause in the federal court system instead of the state courts in Florida.

The congressional effort was led by several lawmakers who are seen as heroes by conservative Christians, including the House Majority Leader, Republican Congressman Tom Delay of Texas.

"I say again, the legal and political issues may be complicated, but the moral ones are not," said Mr. Delay.

President Bush praised the congressional action and quickly signed the measure into law.

"In extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life," said Mr. Bush.

Religious conservatives also kept up the pressure on Florida Governor Jeb Bush to intervene and take custody of Terri Schiavo when it became clear that all legal options were exhausted.

"We are pleading with you, Governor Bush, we respect you. You know what is happening here," pleaded the Reverend Patrick Mahoney, who is Director of the Christian Defense Coalition and has long been involved in anti-abortion efforts around the country.

But several public opinion polls suggest a clear majority of Americans, including many who identify themselves as evangelical Christians, disapproved of congressional involvement in the Schiavo case.

Some of that sentiment was reflected in call-in programs on the C-SPAN public affairs cable television network.

CALLER: "I wish Congress would keep their nose out of it."

CALLER 2: "This is the right-wing elitists, the born-again Christians. You have all come out of the closet and the president, Senator [Bill] Frist, [House Speaker Dennis] Hastert, you all think that you are above the law."

University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato is among those who have been analyzing the polling data.

"Clearly there is at least a short term impact and it is anti-Republican," said Mr. Sabato. "It is hurting President Bush, it is hurting the Republican Congress. I would stress that it is short term. It has probably cost President Bush a few points [in public opinion polls]."

But many congressional Democrats also supported the effort to help Terri Schiavo's parents pursue their case in federal court, indicating that the opposition party was split on what to do.

Among the few Democrats who spoke out against the Republican-led effort was Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

"We now have people who do not just chafe at the limits, they totally disregard them," he said. "This is clearly an assertion that anytime a majority of the people in power in Washington today want a substantive outcome [in their favor] they can bring it about. No pre-existing principles, no constitutional doctrines will get in the way."

Political experts say many Democrats have been reluctant to speak out on the case because they fear offending voters concerned with Terri Schiavo's fate.

Democrats are also mindful that President Bush benefited from a strong turnout from conservative Christian voters in his re-election victory last November.

"They [Democrats] were creamed [hurt] in the last election on values issues," said analyst Larry Sabato. "They did not want to add to the burden they are carrying on their shoulders. They are viewed as being secular [non-religious] and even humanist and hedonist."

Professor Sabato and other experts say the long-term political impact of the Terri Schiavo case is hard to gauge. But they do predict that the same type of emotional and divisive debate that accompanied the Schiavo case is likely to resurface in future debates about abortion, homosexual marriage and stem cell research.

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