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A Fate Worse Than Death in Florida

By Howard Gleckman Sometime in the third week of October, Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who's at the center of a nasty battle over the right to die, ceased to be a person. She has instead become a political symbol, which may be a fate worse than death.

Her life -- what there is of it -- has become a prop in an especially grotesque bit of public theater. Right-to-lifers have made her a poster child for their belief that Big Government, not families and their doctors, should resolve painful questions of life and death. Her parents, who desperately want to keep their daughter alive, are cleverly using TV, movement conservatives, and self-righteous politicians to help achieve their goal. And in an ugly symbiotic dance, those same groups are using Schiavo and her anguished family to further their own interests.

AROUND THE LAW. Her story is familiar by now. In 1990, Schiavo suffered major brain damage. Her eyes are open, and she goes through periods of sleep and wakefulness. But that part of her brain that controls feeling, thinking, and most motor functions has been destroyed. She can breathe on her own, but cannot eat, thus she is kept alive with a feeding tube. Doctors say she has no chance of recovering.

Schiavo's husband petitioned a Florida court to have the feeding device removed, a step that would lead to her death within a few weeks. Her parents strongly objected. What would Shiavo want? Her husband says she would want to be allowed to die. But she left no written instructions. After a hearing, a judge agreed that given her medical condition, her husband had the legal right to have the feeding tube removed. The decision was supported by years of court rulings, as well as a Florida law.

That's when the game of political ping-pong began. Florida Governor Jeb Bush -- the President's brother -- tried to stop the feeding tube from being removed, was rebuffed by the courts, then got his state legislature to grant him explicit authority to order the tube reinserted. All of this was accompanied by crowds cheering and platitudinous politicians spouting their deep concern for Schiavo -- "that beautiful woman," many called her -- and covered live by cable TV.

MISSING THE POINT. It's tough to be critical of her parents. Anyone who has had to watch a loved one die understands their emotions. But they have helped make their daughter a pawn in a great cynical chess game, shuttled from hospital to hospice and back to hospital, having a feeding tube inserted, removed, and reinserted, depending on the state of the law on any given day.

The politicians, you can be certain, have other motives. The GOP speaker of the Florida House sees the issue as his ticket to the U.S. Senate. The governor, whose administration lost hundreds of children in state-managed foster care, has suddenly discovered an abiding concern for human life. And hard-right activists see the Schiavo matter as their wedge to push for pet issues from abortion to school prayer.

Schiavo is merely this week's photo op. And she'll be forgotten by her new allies as soon as they move on to their next battle.

A YAWNING GULF. The great untold story is that what's happening to Schiavo occurs hundreds of times a day in hospitals, nursing homes, and bedrooms. People get very sick. And after agonizing talks with doctors and friends, often after prayer, families make the painful decision about whether to continue artificial means to keep a loved one alive. Sometimes, the choice is to do everything possible. Many other times, the choice is to let someone die.

The Schiavo case is not, as some critics suggest, about state-sponsored killing. A yawning ethical, legal, and theological gulf exists between allowing someone to die and acting to hasten their death, a la Dr. Kevorkian.

In a perfect world, everyone would prepare a living will, in which we would explicitly say whether we want to be kept alive through extraordinary measures. But in this imperfect world, many people don't, and someone has to make the painful decision.

"MAY GOD HAVE MERCY." The choice should be made by the family, not the state. If the family cannot agree, the courts can resolve the matter. That's not a great option. But do we really want politicians -- with their own agendas and ambitions -- deciding who lives and who dies? Make no mistake. That is what Florida has done.

The president of the Florida Senate, James E. King, got it right: "I really do hope we've done the right thing. I keep thinking, what if Terri didn't want this to happen at all," he said. "May God have mercy on all of us." The tragedy is he didn't figure that out until after he turned Schiavo's life over to Jeb Bush. Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington

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