A macabre move in the Senate

Terry Schiavo's feeding tube has been removed. What will Republicans do next to keep her alive?

By Tim Grieve
Published March 18, 2005 6:19PM (EST)

The House of Representatives transformed itself into some kind of weird sporting circus yesterday with 11 hours of hearings on steroid use among Major League Baseball players. Not to be outdone, Republicans in the Senate have just announced plans for their own bit of theatrical grandstanding: They're going to subpoena Terri Schiavo to appear before the Senate Health Committee.

"Appear" is the operative word, of course. Schiavo, who has been in a persistent vegetative state for more than a decade, can't really "testify" before the committee. But the Republicans aren't looking for her testimony. They're looking for a way to prevent doctors from removing her feeding tube, and they figure that subpoenaing Schiavo might provide it. As Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist explained in a statement, federal law makes it a crime for anyone to "obstruct or impede a witness's attendance or testimony." Removing the feeding tube would lead to Schiavo's death, thereby "obstructing or impeding" her appearance before the Senate. Thus, by demanding that Schiavo be moved from Florida to Washington for a show hearing, the Republicans can -- without a court order, without even a vote in Congress -- game the system to keep Schiavo alive for a little while longer.

The Republican's move isn't just creepy -- it's a dangerous precedent. If Frist and his crew can subpoena Schiavo to prevent doctors from removing her feeding tube, what would prevent other members of Congress from subpoenaing fetuses to prevent abortions or death row inmates to prevent executions? Perhaps University of North Carolina fans in the Senate can subpoena the starting five from the Duke Blue Devils to head-off a tough match-up in the NCAA tournament.

Yes, we know that the Schiavo case is a serious matter and that it raises issues of life-and-death importance. But by addressing it through a macabre political game, Republicans in the Senate cheapen the cause that they champion -- and themselves.

Update: A source tells the Associated Press that Schiavo's feeding tube has just been removed. At a brief hearing this afternoon, Pinellas County Circuit Judge George Greer rejected attempts by House Republicans to intervene in the case, saying he saw "no cogent reason" to allow such a move. It's unclear what Senate Republican will do next: If they truly believe that Judge Greer and Schiavo's doctors are violating federal law preventing the interference with a person's attendance at congressional hearings, they could seek a court order requiring re-insertion of the feeding tube or even ask federal law enforcement officials to step in and make arrests. Although the Schiavo case has been national news for more than a decade, the political spectacle may be just beginning.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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