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Schiavo battle hints at larger culture war

As Terri Schiavo lies on her deathbed, the brain-damaged woman has been thrust into the latest battle in the nation’s culture wars, joining other hot-button issues such as gay marriage, abortion or stem-cell research.
Hope Fades For Schiavo Supporters As Courts Decline To Intervene
A procession Sunday outside the Pinellas, Fla., hospice where Terri Schiavo is receiving care points to the religious overtones surrounding the legal and political battle over the brain-damaged woman.Spencer Platt / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The hushed tones within the Woodside Hospice are in marked contrast to the raised voices outside.

As Terri Schiavo lies on her deathbed, the brain-damaged woman has been thrust into the latest battle in the nation’s culture wars, joining other hot-button issues such as gay marriage, abortion or stem-cell research.

“This has been the most significant life-and-death case that the country has faced in years,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice, which has represented Bob and Mary Schindler during their protracted legal battle against their daughter’s husband.

New era of activism
Fueled by deeply held religious beliefs and connected nationwide through a sophisticated political network using e-mail and telephone, conservative activists have gotten Congress and President Bush to intervene on behalf of Schiavo’s parents.

Arrayed against such social conservatives are husband Michael Schiavo and liberal leaders, including Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Florida chapter.

“How can a small, well-organized group which is basically the anti-choice lobby capture the machinery of government so that theological extremists are shaping public policy? That’s what’s going on,” he said.

The political momentum that propelled the Schiavo case onto the national legislative agenda has been building since 2003, when Michael Schiavo had his wife’s feeding tube removed and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through a special law six days later giving him the power to have it reinserted.

The Schindlers’ emotional pleas inspired thousands of people to pressure the governor and Florida legislature to intervene in 2003 and again last week when Congress voted to ask a federal court to intervene.

“This has really backfired on these right-to-die advocates and has really advanced our cause that there is dignity and worth in human life,” Sekulow said. “The whole faith-based community is more politically attuned and more organized than it has ever been before.”

Battle reflects evangelical push
The Schindlers’ hopes of getting relief in federal court were dashed when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by her parents to keep their daughter alive. The decision marked the end of a dramatic four-day-dash through the federal court system.

Political watchers say the Terri Schiavo case draws on the activism from other social issues that are part of the larger cultural battle that emerged in the 1980s when evangelical leaders began calling on their followers to become politically active.

Fresh off the November elections in which religious conservatives were key in returning President Bush to the White House, the political forces were ready to swing into action again when the Schiavo case hit a critical point this month.

Already both sides have been energized by the national debate over gay marriage, stem cell research and abortion. There is also the looming U.S. Supreme Court arguments on Oregon’s assisted suicide law in the session which begins in October.

The Interfaith Alliance and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have accused lawmakers of cynically manipulating Schiavo’s plight to advance the agenda of Christian conservatives on issues including banning gay marriage and appointing conservative federal judges.

Case of 'selective morality'?
A group of 150 religious leaders issued a related statement Friday accusing policy-makers of promoting a “selective morality” that ignores broader social issues such as health care and the environment.

“The language today coming from Florida from the religious right is language about midterm elections and the political consequences people will pay for not adhering to their agenda,” said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the alliance, a liberal-leaning Washington advocacy group.

But Carrie Gordon Earll, a senior policy analyst for Focus on the Family, which has been one of the most influential conservative groups in rallying the faithful to political action, said what is at hand in the Schiavo case is nothing more than democracy in action.

“Terri is a person we can see and we can rally around her,” Earll said. “She is a silent spokesperson for the value of life and she doesn’t even know it. She represents the medically vulnerable, the disabled and she also represents the tiny embryos at the center of the stem-cell debate. It’s the same value for human life.”