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Death and politics

BOZEMAN, Mont.THIS IS the phrase running through my head whenever I think of Terri Schiavo: May she rest in peace. When will this become a benediction rather than a question?

Last weekend, we saw bioethics trumped by biopolitics. After 15 years in a persistent vegetative state, after seven years in court, after motions and more motions, appeals and more appeals, Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was again removed.

A Congress that rushed to intervene cared less about neurology than electability. Doing the right thing mattered less than appeasing the right wing. By early Monday morning, the president had signed an unprecedented law allowing ''any parent of Theresa Marie Schiavo" to sue in federal court to keep her alive.

It's tempting to say that they played politics with this case, but ''play" is far too frivolous a word.

First, let me exempt Terri's parents from this indictment. As the much-maligned George Greer, the Florida judge who now travels with bodyguards, said in a thoughtful and empathetic opinion: ''We understand why a parent who had raised and nurtured a child from conception would hold out hope . . ." Any one of us can imagine the pain behind Terri's mother's denial: ''We laugh together, we cry together, we smile together, we talk together."

But what of the others who have hovered around Terri's media bedside? Randall Terry of Operation Rescue actually described her as ''chipper." A family lawyer, Barbara Weller, told the media how she exhorted the 41-year-old woman: ''I said to her, 'Terri, if you can just say I want to live, we can just end this whole thing today. Terri, can you just try really, really hard.' " Is there another way to spell exploitation?

What about Tom DeLay, for that matter, a politician on his own life support for fund-raising improprieties, who cast himself as Terri's protector against ''medical terrorism." And don't forget the infamous ''talking points" memo ABC News found reminding Republican senators that ''the prolife base will be excited" and it's a ''great political issue."

Last Saturday, walking down Main Street here, I passed a picketer carrying a sign that read: ''How do you kill a woman who's smiling at you?" One freeze-frame of Terri's face has had more power -- and more play -- than hours of videotape, years of observation, reams of medical testimony.

Since her heart attack, this woman has been in the persistent vegetative state that doctors describe as ''a state of wakeful unresponsiveness." Her cerebral cortex, the part of our anatomy that controls our ability to think and feel, is the consistency of Jell-O.

Bioethicists who are professionally wary of absolutes will tell you that after a few months, let alone 15 years, there is ''virtually no chance" of improvement, no chance of consciousness.

But biopoliticians, even those who know better, like Senator Bill Frist, a medical doctor, latch onto the ''virtually" in trying to legislate miracles.

More to the point, bioethicists will also tell you that this case is about the right to refuse medical treatment -- chemotherapy, blood transfusions, or, yes, food and water. Can we make that decision, and if not, who can? Decades of hard cases have established our right to say no, and state legislation has determined that our spouses, adult children, parents -- in that order -- can act for us. In Florida, the courts determined that Michael Schiavo knew what his wife wanted and spoke for her.

But biopoliticians say this case is about defending ''the culture of life." Having recast Michael Schiavo as Scott Peterson, they recast the law for those groups who want to prove that being ''prolife" is not just being antiabortion.

We are learning all about that.

The narrative line that connects abortion opponents with end-of-life care is pretty clear. It gives the government, not the individual, the power to make our most critical, intimate decisions.

As I write, two federal courts have bucked Congress and refused to reinstate the feeding tube.

But whatever happens, I am afraid, this is not the end of it. Indeed, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, living proof that biopolitics can be bipartisan, wants a bill to provide federal review of any similar case.

Down here, among the biocitizenry, 78 percent of those surveyed in an ABC poll said they wouldn't want to be kept alive in Terri's condition. About two-thirds of us think a spouse should have the final say, and 70 percent thought Congress should not have gotten involved.

Maybe we know something that biopoliticians don't know. At one time or another, nearly every American will face a searing medical and emotional decision about the people we love. May we all find the peace -- without the politics.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

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