Back in early 2005, America's national controversy of the moment revolved around a high-tech hospital bed in Florida in which languished one Terri Schiavo - or perhaps her forsaken shell; nobody could tell for certain whether she was still in there or not. The unfortunate Mrs. Schiavo had suffered a debilitating heart attack in 1990 which destroyed her brain functions. For the next decade and a half she remained either comatose or in a vegetative state, entirely dependent for her survival on complex machinery and round-the-clock professional care.
Strange as it may seem, it is not unheard of for a long-term vegetative person to suddenly wake up after years of unconsciousness. It is, however, quite rare, and keeping the vegetative body "alive" in the meantime is exceedingly expensive.
What's more, there are persistent reports of people's minds being "trapped" in a completely non-responsive body - that is, they can hear and think perfectly well, but cannot respond, move, or function in any visible way. It would be difficult to imagine a more blood-curdling form of imprisonment, in the minds of many quite literally a fate worse than death.
Many healthy people have told their loved ones that if they're ever in such a state, "pull the plug and put me out of my misery." According to her husband Michael, Mrs. Schiavo had said just that to him prior to her accident. After a few years passed with her still unresponsive, he tried to convince first the doctors and then the courts to unplug the machinery and let her body die.
Her parents felt strongly the other way, wanting no effort spared to keep their daughter alive even if only technically. In the end, Mr. Schiavo won, Terri was unplugged, and before long her body rejoined her mind, wherever it might have been.
There are many vital legal and ethical questions involved in this case. When, exactly, are you dead? When is it fair to give up on hope of recovery? How much should be spent on seemingly hopeless cases, and at whose expense? But the most fundamental question of all is: Who should make those decisions?
It seems like ancient history now, but at the time Republicans were ascendant both nationally and in Terri's state of Florida. In keeping with Republican pro-life traditions, Republican politicians argued that nobody has to right to declare someone else's life not worth living and thus Terri had to be kept alive no matter what anyone else thought. On the other hand, Democrats argued that it was not the government's business what decisions someone made about his or her own life - or, if like Terri they were in no fit state to make decisions, their nearest and dearest could make the call.
The final court decision came down based on hundreds of years of tradition, custom, legal precedent, and common sense: your closest relatives, in this case Terri's husband, make the decision. Her parents were close relatives and they felt differently, but the spouse is closer.
Along the way to this tragic decision, America got to see politicians from President Bush and Governor Bush on down attempting to force their desired outcome by passing special laws. This shone a bright spotlight on fundamental preferences of the two parties. The bottom line that America took away from the argument was: Republicans want to keep you alive no matter what; Democrats don't mind if you choose to die, or your relatives choose to let you.
At the time, that worked out well for Democrats. It was, after all, Republican politicians who wanted to force the government's nose into an intimate family decision. A great many people fear being trapped in a coma and, were they in Terri's state, would want the plug pulled without much chit-chat.
Democrats cast Republicans as captive to religious extremists and, in a strange turnabout from the norm, claimed that Republicans were in favor of more intrusive government. The Terri Schiavo case is given partial credit for the 2006 Democratic recapture of Congress. Her death was a victory for the Dems.
Fast forward to today. The Democrats reign supreme with unstoppable majorities in both houses of Congress and, of course, have President Obama in the White House. For fifty years their fondest wish has been to establish a universal health care system of some form, guaranteeing medical care at taxpayer expense to all residents of America whether here legally or not.
The problem is, what the government grants, it can also take away. If government provides everyone's health care, it can also decide when you don't get care, or what kinds of care you are allowed.
This is a worrying prospect, one which Sarah Palin and other Republicans are hammering home. After all, didn't the Democrats just pound Republicans for refusing to unplug someone who was plainly in medical need? Gov. Palin makes a powerful argument connecting past Democratic history that everybody knows with Mr. Obama's medical plans of today. She said:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
Needless to say, Mr. Obama was not amused.
The rumor that's been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for death panels that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we've decided that we don't, it's too expensive to let her live anymore....It turns out that I guess this arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills, the availability of hospice, etc. So the intention of the members of Congress was to give people more information so that they could handle issues of end-of-life care when they're ready on their own terms. It wasn't forcing anybody to do anything.
The President has missed the point. It's not that Mr. Obama will force people to die by withholding medical treatment, at least, not in the law that's now before Congress. It's that under his plan, the government can force people to die by refusing to pay for treatment, and what's more, government has every financial incentive to do so.
It comes back to trust. Given that under a national health care system, government can kill your grandma and save money by killing her, do you trust the government to recognize euthanasia for the evil that it is?
Republicans paid a price in the Terri Schiavo ruckus, but it appears that the price they paid bought them something valuable: the confidence of most Americans that Republicans don't want to kill expensive patients no matter what.
In 2005, the Democrats convinced Americans that they don't mind if you want to die. Today they want to give themselves the power and incentive to persuade you that you'd be better off dead.
What an unhealthy combination! Even the least politically-aware American knows that when the government wants you to do something, it finds a way to make life very difficult for you unless you do what they want. What will happen when the government wants you to choose to die to save them a buck, but you're not ready to kick the bucket just yet? Nothing good...
Is it any wonder the American electorate is panic-stricken at the prospect of Obamacare passing into law? Terri Schiavo is dead, but the public manner of her death and the vivid details of her story may end up saving the lives of countless American retirees.