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Learning from the Schiavo story
by James K. Glassman
Scripps Howard News Service


March 28, 2005

Las Vegas - If anything good comes from the sad story of Terri Schiavo's life and death, it is that a brighter line has been drawn between the personal and the political.

The Schiavo case is straightforward: A young woman's heart stopped beating in 1990, cutting off oxygen to her brain and destroying her cerebral cortex. Before this happened, according to her husband, who is her legal guardian, she said that, under such circumstances she would not want to be kept alive artificially. But she left no living will.

Court-appointed doctors confirmed that she was in a "persistent vegetative state," kept alive by a feeding tube. But her parents sued to keep her alive. The courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, rejected their claims.

A solid majority of Americans - 63 percent - agree with this result. They believe that a person in such a condition should be able to choose not to go on living, and the courts have backed them up.

But this is nothing new. What distinguished the Schiavo case was the intervention of Congress. Republican leaders Tom DeLay (Texas) in the House and Bill Frist (Tennessee) in the Senate fashioned a quickie bill that ordered federal courts to supersede state courts in the Schiavo matter alone. It was passed overwhelmingly, and President Bush rushed back to Washington to sign it at 1 a.m. Like most expedited legislation with huge majorities (the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the Sarbanes-Oxley bill spring to mind), this one turns out to have been a mistake.

First, it didn't save Terry Schiavo. Second, it didn't please Americans.

A CBS survey, for example, found that 82 percent of those polled (and 68 percent of those who say they are evangelical Christians) believe that what Congress did was wrong.

The reaction illuminates where the country really stands - not just on the Schiavo case, but on an expanse of public policy issues. Let me simplify: Americans are religious, but they are also tolerant. They believe government has a role to play, but it is a restricted one. In both the personal and the economic realms, Americans want to be able to make their own decisions. Neither party seems to understand these basic facts of political life.

The Republican Party, at least as it's currently constituted, wants government to intervene in social questions (like the Schiavo case) but not in economic questions (like setting a minimum wage). The Democratic Party wants to keep government out of social questions (stem-cell research is an example) but wants intervention in economic matters (e.g., Social Security).

Surveys show that America is split down the middle by party. But imagine if either party took the consistent position of advocating a limited government role in both social and economic questions. Such a new party could capture a clear majority of U.S. voters.

What is such a political ideology called? The proper name is "liberal," but, unfortunately, that word is meaningless today in America. Republicans call Democrats "liberals" as a term of opprobrium, but a better description for most Democrats would be "socialists" or "social democrats."

Liberals are people who put the ideal of liberty (rather than, say, equality) first. The better home today for people who are truly liberal is the Republican Party, which is also the home of many illiberal types _ though intolerance is far more pervasive on the left than the right. (Try advancing an unpopular view on a college campus.)

The greatest liberal of the 20th century, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek, wrote a famous essay in 1960 called "Why I Am Not a Conservative." He worried that conservatives would be just as eager to impose their views, through government meddling, as socialists. Sadly, as we can see in the Schiavo case, he was right.

This is not to say that Americans want something extreme or secularist. The Declaration of Independence founded the new nation on the principle that our rights are bestowed by God, and religion and morality clearly should inform both public and private decisions.

But we want to be left alone by government to make up our own minds. Such an approach not only enhances personal freedom, it also develops personal responsibility. For that reason, perhaps the best name for a new majority party in America is the Responsibility Party.

And, yes, on many questions - including whether a severely ill loved one lives or dies - the responsibility belongs to the individual, not the government.



James K. Glassman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
and host of the Web site,
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service


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