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Exploiting Terri Schiavo

THE US Congress has no place at Terri Schiavo's bedside. Neither does the president of the United States.

The Florida Legislature and Governor Jeb Bush did not belong there in 2003, with their hastily passed ''Terri's Law," which allowed a twice-removed feeding tube to be reinserted in someone who has been in a vegetative state since 1990. Schiavo, now 41, went into cardiac arrest 15 years ago from what was believed to be a potassium imbalance, and the heart stoppage cut off oxygen to her brain.

Despite last fall's Florida Supreme Court ruling striking down ''Terri's Law" as unconstitutional, and despite lower court decisions upholding the efforts of Michael Schiavo -- Terri's husband and legal guardian -- to follow what he maintains are her wishes to die, Congress intruded last week with a clearly political agenda. Siding with Terri's parents -- who have opposed Michael in this painful legal battle -- Congress passed, and President Bush signed, a bill early Monday morning allowing the Schindlers to ask a federal district court judge for an emergency injunction to reattach Terri to the feeding tube.

ABC News and The Washington Post reported that a memo distributed to senators by Republican leaders over the weekend called the Schiavo case a ''great political issue," adding that ''the prolife base will be excited" by the debate. The memo also noted the vulnerability of Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who refused to support the effort to save Terri.

Using what is left of Schiavo's life to try to win votes is unconscionable, for it prolongs what medical experts have deemed hopeless. Turning her plight into an ideological circus with right-to-life protesters facing off against the right-to-die faction outside a hospice facility robs her of dignity and privacy -- which all human beings deserve, whether they are aware of what is happening or not.

Deciding to remove life support from someone in Schiavo's condition is an agonizing choice best made in consultation with doctors and clergy and one's own conscience. It is a decision that demands quiet thought, not the roar of demagogues framing sound bites.

Those who insist, as Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee has, that keeping Schiavo alive is maintaining ''the sanctity of human life" make their pronouncements geographically and emotionally far removed from this particular ground zero, and have no basis on which to judge it clearly.

They say they are doing God's work, but should consider that it is man's machinery that has prolonged this sad shell of a human being. All religions teach that there is a time to let go.

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