Accepting the Mantle

Accepting the Mantle

VOLUME 2, ISSUE 43 | OCTOBER 23 – 29, 2003


Our Partners by Choice

A developing story out of Florida this week highlights the persistent threats that all of us in society face as we struggle to assert and maintain our dignity, our autonomy, and our right of choice over our own lives and bodies—and to give our partners in love the proxy to make those choices on our behalf should circumstances require that.

It is a cautionary tale that should have particular poignancy for anyone in the queer community who has worked to ensure that their domestic partnership affords them sufficient protection for each partner to care for the other in life and after death.

On Tuesday, October 21, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ordered that a feeding tube be reinserted into a brain-damaged 39-year-old woman, six days after her husband chose to discontinue that life support. The woman, Terri Schiavo, has relied on the feeding tube since 1990, when in 1998 her heart stopped temporarily. Her husband, Michael Schiavo concluded, with the advice of doctors, that his wife was in an irreversible vegetative state, and began court proceedings to allow life support to be withdrawn.

According to Michael Schiavo, his wife, prior to her health crisis, had confided to him that she would never want to be kept alive by purely artificial means. In a rare statement to the press, Mr. Schiavo said that he had selfishly ignored his wife’s wishes for eight years, hoping against hope that she might recover some cognitive functions. Finally, he said, he recognized his duty to her.

His wife’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, fought Schiavo at every step in the legal process. They who cited deeply held religious beliefs as well as the faith that their daughter still has cognitive functions. They have produced videotapes showing facial and eye movement by their daughter, though experts say that involuntary motion is not unusual for people confined in a vegetative condition.

Terri Schiavo’s parents ran out of legal options earlier this month when a court gave Michael Schiavo the go-ahead to make the decision to terminate life support for his wife.

Then, a special session of the Florida legislature, called by Bush to consider economic development issues, took up the Schiavo matter, and in a day-long, often wrenching debate Monday, approved, by wide margins in both houses, a measure that empowers the governor to step in and override the state’s courts in this case only. Bush signed the bill and the following day ordered that the feeding tube be reinserted.

This extraordinary action was taken despite the lack of medical evidence that Terri Schiavo has any chance for a meaningful life, despite warnings by advocates for Michael Schiavo that his wife’s body may have begun a general shutdown and resuming life support could cause her pain, and despite serious constitutional questions about the legislature and governor’s grab of authority from the state judiciary.

Bush shrugged aside the constitutional questions, saying those were not matters for him to decide. But since the legislature was sitting in special session, he had final say on whether or not the matter could come up for a vote, so his lack of attention to basic constitutional questions on such a critical matter of life and death seems particularly disingenuous.

It would be easy, but also glib, to lump this incident in with other recent actions by the Bush family to appease right wing forces in the nation. Indeed, Jeb Bush’s actions came the same day that the U.S. Senate, by a commanding 64-34 vote, approved a ban on the late term abortion procedure that opponents call “partial-birth abortion” and the proposed legislation defined as an “overt act to kill the partially delivered living fetus.”

Pres. George W. Bush said the vote would help “build a culture of life in America,” even though the ban provides no exceptions for the health of the mother and despite the fact that such procedures are exceedingly rare and generally come in response to very difficult pregnancy circumstances.

The most salient issue here, however, is not how the Bush brothers are behaving politically.

The real issue is the underlying instinct very much alive in America to substitute moral judgments for medical ones and political judgments for ones that appropriately are personal choices.

That is an argument in which LGBT community very much has a stake.

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