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Exposing prolife zealotry

SOME GOOD may yet come of Terri Schiavo's sad story. More of us will think hard about how we'd want to be treated if terminally incapacitated. More of us will write living wills, making clear who is in charge. And more people will gain a truer understanding of the religious right.

The Republican Party may also hesitate, out of its own life-support instincts, before rushing so recklessly to embrace extreme zealotry.

And the Democrats, often cowed by America's latest apparent romance with fundamentalism, may wake from their own persistent vegetative state. Much to the shock of Republican operatives and opportunists, polls show that most Americans deeply resent the plain meddling reflected in the right-wing dash back to Washington to write a one-woman law to keep Terri Schiavo on a feeding tube. Bill Frist, the doctor-senator, looked like a perfect idiot when he purported to diagnose her condition via videotape. Even Jeb Bush is backing off.

Most Democrats initially flinched, recoiling against Republican rhetoric branding them the ''party of death." They ducked a record vote on ''Terri's Law," deciding to stay out of the way while Republicans immolated themselves. Only a handful of Democrats had the nerve to point out the sheer hypocrisy of Republicans writing special legislation guaranteeing Schiavo medical treatment but letting tens of millions who really need treatment go without.

Representative Barney Frank famously declared, ''The right-to-lifers believe that the right to life begins with conception and ends at birth," meaning that if antiabortion militants truly cared about life, they might expend more effort on what happens to children once born. We should now extend Frank's insight to end-of-life care: The religious right should also devote more energy to how society treats its frail and elderly while they are conscious and begging for decent services. (When did you see the religious right lobbying for, say, better nursing care?)

But isn't the religious right winning? The press has been filled with stories of earnest communities where biblical literalism is central to most people's lives. These communities, apparently, are growing, while those that reflect the spirit of the Enlightenment -- rational inquiry, religious tolerance, plural identities, strong civic life -- are shrinking. Many liberals conclude that they must live in a bubble not representative of the country.

However, the public response to the Schiavo case tells a more complex story. While most Americans believe in God and attend church, synagogue, or mosque, few welcome the busybody behavior of the religious right, most recently in its morbid embrace of Terri Schiavo.

Too may of us have been through the agony of this kind of decision to want opportunistic politicians or religious crusaders to take it over. The right is at odds with 30 years of delicate progress in dealing with death and dying.

Three decades ago, the medical profession usually insisted that everything possible should be done to prolong life, however cruel, painful, and futile. The pioneers of the hospice movement gradually made inroads in demonstrating that a dying patient could be treated far more humanely via what came to be called ''palliative care." This meant attending to the patient's comfort, respecting the patient's wishes, and permitting strong painkillers that might, in some cases, even hasten death.

During the same period, states began passing living will legislation, giving people the right to stipulate in advance whether they wanted medical heroics in certain circumstances. Leaving aside the more controversial Oregon-style ''right to die" legislation, the living will and hospice movements represented immense progress largely supported by mainline religions. Many of the movement's pioneers were clergymen with ministries tending to the dying and their families. Many of the early direct caregivers in hospices were nuns.

Until the Schiavo case, the ''right-to-life" zealots pretty much left well enough alone when it came to end-of-life care. It's a harder sell to raid a hospice than an abortion clinic. Most Americans of all religious faiths, as well as the unaffiliated, want such decisions kept private.

Terri Schiavo's legacy could be the opposite of what the right intended. Americans are being reminded that the religious right and its politician-allies are zealots not just about abortion; they also want dogma to overrule science when it comes to stem cell research, contraception, and high school biology; they'd intrude on the most painful and intimate of family decisions -- all in the name of their own unchallengeable definition of God's will. Religious upsurge or not, this is not the country most Americans want.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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