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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 April, 2005, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Schiavo case tests America

By Justin Webb
BBC Washington correspondent

The death of Terri Schiavo this week has not ended America's painful ethical and political debate over individuals' right to die. Her husband wanted her to be allowed to die, but her parents fought against it and received support from the most powerful Americans in the land.

A younger Terri Schiavo
Terri Schiavo died 13 days after her feeding tubes had been removed

In all the three years that I have been reporting from this country, I do not believe there has been a more important moment in its history than this.

Or an issue that illuminates the complex and vital soul of America as the Terri Schiavo case does.

It transcends the presidential election, the Iraq war, the rows over gay marriage and television nudity and all the other stuff, consequential, inconsequential and downright weird, which counts as "news about America".

The reason the Schiavo case is so important, the reason it has Americans talking and arguing, and the reason it should, in my view, have the rest of us re-assessing our view of this nation, is that Americans were corralled but rebelled.

They were emotionally blackmailed but refused to budge, were told that their deepest held religious beliefs should push them in one direction, but thought for themselves and thought differently.

America is often portrayed as an ignorant, unsophisticated sort of place, full of bible bashers and ruled to a dangerous extent by trashy television, superstition and religious bigotry, a place lacking in respect for evidence based knowledge.

I know that is how it is portrayed because I have done my bit to paint that picture, and that picture is in many respects a true one.


Look no further than the $25m creationist museum which is about to open in Kentucky.

Feb 1990: Terri Schiavo collapses
May 1998: Mr Schiavo files petition to remove feeding tube
Oct 2003: Florida lower house passes "Terri's Law", allowing governor to order doctors to feed Mrs Schiavo
Sept 2004: Florida Supreme Court strikes down law
18 Mar 2005: Florida court allows removal of tube
22 Mar 2005: Federal judge rejects appeal
23 Mar 2005: Appeals court backs federal ruling
29 Mar 2005: Federal court grants parents leave to appeal
30 Mar 2005: Federal court and Supreme Court reject parents' appeal
31 Mar 2005: Terri Schiavo dies

Complete with models of Adam and Eve being chased by dinosaurs, surely some mistake, and explanations of AIDS that blame the disease on homosexuality.

There is plenty of barminess and plenty of nastiness here if you look for it, but for me, the revelation of the Schiavo case was that there is plenty of good sense as well.

Plenty of honest disagreement among reasonable people, religious and non religious, Republican and Democrat.

And in the end a majority who value what we can call, without irony, the American way of life, and believe their politicians and the right-to-life campaigners over-reached themselves in this case.

Remember that two weeks ago, America's Congress interrupted its holiday and in solemn session convened in Washington to change the law in order that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube should be reinserted.

The president himself brought Air Force One back from Texas in order that he could sleep at the White House, and get up at one o' clock in the morning to sign the new law in his pyjamas.

Right to live

As these events were happening, there were heart-rending pleas from Mrs Schiavo's parents who were genuinely convinced that their daughter wanted to live and might get better.

And exhortations from the religious right that this was the moment America could define itself as genuinely culturally conservative.

Terri Schiavo
Mrs Schiavo had been at the heart of a seven-year court battle

Proof of all those claims which were made after the re-election of Mr Bush, that a new dawn had come.

And for good measure, twenty-four hours a day, the television news showed pictures of Terri Schiavo looking responsive, even affectionate, and above all looking vulnerable.

What did Americans make of this?

Well, I do not think its cynical to say the politicians would not have acted as they did, without some fairly strong belief that they would be backed and thanked by a grateful nation.

And at the time, I would have bet any money on that outcome.

But it did not happen and the reasons why it did not happen go to the heart of this wonderfully surprising place.

Americans do believe in God and they do believe in life, but they also believe in law, and rules, and the need for democracy to restrain, not satisfy, the wishes of politicians.


The founding fathers, with a wisdom which truly does echo down the ages, decided that there would be a separation of powers.

General laws would be made by politicians representing the people, but then interpreted and applied by judges.

The founding fathers must be watching from their heavenly perches and wondering at the power of the constitution they created

The reason is simple, to limit the power of government to interfere in any individuals life.

If you can convince the courts that you are legally in the right, then no politician, even the president himself in his pyjamas and on his high horse, can stop you.

Michael Schiavo, Terri Schiavo's much vilified husband, did convince the courts.

He believed that his wife would want to die and they agreed.

It is a lesson the Republican party, which has allowed itself to become very closely allied with the religious right, will reflect on in the months ahead.

Already moderate Republicans are talking openly of re-capturing their party from the social conservatives.

It is possible at least that the high watermark of social conservatism has been reached. Its limit set by the will of a silent liberal majority.

The founding fathers must be watching from their heavenly perches and wondering at the power of the constitution they created.

It is common to mock at American attempts to export Jeffersonian democracy, but after these two weeks the mocking should stop.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 April, 2005, at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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