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The Battle Over Terri Schiavo’s Legacy
O n the eve of the March 31 anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo—the woman who had been in a “persistent vegetative state” since 1990—the battle over her life, which took place in the courts, in the nation’s capital, and on the streets outside her hospice room, shifted to a battle over her legacy.
In a New Yorker article about the Bush administration’s protracted war on science, Michael Specter wrote that in 1998, when Michael Schiavo “asked that [Terri’s] feeding tube be removed...a legal war with her parents [was ignited] that eventually turned into a national conflict.”
After several years of legal wrangling, it came down to the passion-packed month of March 2005 when regular press conferences were held by her parents, Mary and Bob Schindler, and their mostly right-wing political surrogates. Demonstrations and vigils were organized by a cadre of longtime Christian right activists and fundraising pitches were sent by a host of Christian conservative organizations. In addition a well-orchestrated campaign was aimed at vilifying Terri’s husband, Michael.
With the encouragement of Terri’s parents, religious right activists unleashed a campaign aimed at winning the battle over public opinion. What was a private family matter turned into a media feeding frenzy and a public spectacle.
For the right wing, the Schiavo case was always bigger than whether Terri lived or died. Speaking frankly at a March 23, 2005 Family Research Council-organized event at the Willard Hotel in Washington, then-Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX) laid out what the Schiavo case meant to the conservative movement: “It is more than just Terri Schiavo. This is a critical issue for people in this position and it is also a critical issue to fight that fight for life, whether it be euthanasia or abortion. I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, one thing God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo to elevate the visibility of what’s going on in America. That Americans would be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is lucid and starve them to death for two weeks. I mean, in America that’s going to happen if we don’t win this fight.”
On March 31, 2005, soon after being removed from life support, Terri Schiavo died. On the first anniversary of her death the media paid little attention to the egregious events that had marked the run-up to Terri’s death.
Governor Jeb Bush passed the anniversary quietly. He had continued
attacking Michael Schiavo even after “an autopsy supported”
Michael Schiavo’s “contention that she was unaware of
her condition and incapable of recovering. Within days Jeb Bush…ordered
a state prosecutor to investigate whether Schiavo’s husband
had purposely delayed calling an ambulance when she fell ill in
1990.” According to Specter, “Bush produced no evidence
and his actions alarmed even his Republican allies,” and “the
investigation was quickly dropped.”
Also on the first anniversary the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) didn’t remind the public of the senator’s keen ability to diagnose Schiavo’s condition by viewing a video of her in her hospital room.
The beleaguered and indicted former House Majority Leader and now former Congressperson Tom DeLay, obviously too busy dealing with his own troubles, also didn’t reiterate last year’s threats of retribution against judges.
Randall Terry, the anti-abortion activist and Schiavo family spokesperson, who was one of the people expected to mobilize support for Schiavo among conservative Christians, was nowhere to be seen.
While the Schiavo Case is in several races in Florida this year, the Christian Post reported that, “Unlike last year, when Congress, President Bush, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pressed to keep Schiavo alive, only one lawmaker was on hand…with the Schindlers [at a Washington, DC press conference], Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.”
Following The Money
I n his book Using Terri: The Religious Right’s Conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights (HarperCollins, 2005), Jon Eisenberg, an attorney working pro bono for Michael Schiavo, wrote that the case was a key battle in the religious right’s culture wars, which are being fought on “multiple fronts,” including “pushing for prayer and creationism in the public schools, opposing stem-cell research, women’s reproductive rights, and gay civil unions and marriage.”
Eisenberg found himself wondering, “Who was funding the Schindlers’ advocates.” After visiting the Media Transparency website, Eisenberg identified a “threetiered structure” that included “seven foundations...fourteen think tanks and other religious Right organizations...and eighteen foot soldiers” behind the case. The “foot soldiers” included:
- David Gibbs III and Barbara Weller, attorneys with the Gibbs Law Firm; Gibbs, whose family controls the Christian Law Association, started working on the case in 2003 and became lead attorney for the Schindlers in September 2004
- Pat Anderson, the Schindler’s attorney before September 2004
- Robert Destro, a law professor at Washington, DC’s Catholic University of America and “principal investigator for the antigay” Marriage Law Project, who represented Jeb Bush “in litigation arising from the passage of ‘Terri’s Law’ in 2003, and joined...Gibbs III in representing the Schindlers in 2005”
- Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the Pat Robertson-founded American Center for Law and Justice, who was one of the Schindler’s attorneys
- Deborah Berliner and Brett Wood, “formally affiliated with ...Judicial Watch”
- Wesley J. Smith, “the anti-euthanasia activist,” a “behindthe-scenes ‘informal advisor’ to the Schindlers”
Rita Marker, executive director of the anti-euthanasia International
Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
- Kenneth Connor, former head of the Washington, DC-based Family Research Council, who worked on “Terri’s Law”
- William Saunders and Jon Halisky, lawyers for the FRC’s Center for Human Life and Bioethics
- Max Lapertosa, Kenneth Walden, and Geoge Rahdert, disability rights lawyers
Former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), who spearheaded
- Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), who “sponsored a version of the congressional bill that threw the Schiavo case into the federal courts
- Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL)
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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