Serious questions and substantial doubts

George W. Bush says the government should be careful when considering end-of-life decisions -- or at least this one.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 21, 2005 2:39PM (EST)

George W. Bush, a man famously fond of a good night's sleep, was up at 1:11 a.m. today to sign legislation to expand the jurisdiction of a federal court in Florida. The purpose: To trump years of litigation in the state courts of Florida and give the parents of Terri Schiavo -- and the pro-life activists who support them -- one more chance at getting a judge to order that she be kept alive.

In statement issued to reporters, Bush said: "In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life. This presumption is especially critical for those like Terri Schiavo, who live at the mercy of others."

It's not an unreasonable argument. Confronted with the prospect of living in a "persistent vegetative state," many of us would choose death instead. But when we're making that kind of life-of-death decision for someone else, our society, our laws and our courts should be extraordinarily careful -- a lot more careful, for example, than Bush has been himself. As governor of Texas, Bush made life-or-death decisions in the cases of 153 death row inmates. In 152 cases -- some of which surely raised "serious questions and substantial doubts" -- Bush chose death. According to Bush's own appointment logs, he rarely spent more than 30 minutes listening to a briefing on an inmate's fate.

Terri Schiavo isn't a convicted murderer, of course. Her only crime: failing to sign a living will and advance medical directive before a temporary heart stoppage cut off oxygen to her brain 15 years ago. Bush might argue that the rules should be different when it comes to life-or-death questions for innocents rather than for those convicted of crimes. Maybe that's what he meant when he said this morning that government should be careful "in cases like this one." But the bill the Republicans rushed through Congress over the weekend -- the bill they call the "Palm Sunday Compromise," the one that had House Speaker Denny Hastert quoting the Pope -- that bill doesn't help "in cases like the one." The bill helps in only this case: It opens a federal court to cases brought on behalf of Terri Schiavo and no one else.

And whether the bill ends up "helping" Schiavo herself is another question entirely. We'll never know what Schiavo wants; we'll only know what yet another judge has decided for her. Lawyers for Schiavo's parents filed their federal lawsuit by email at 4:30 this morning.

Tim Grieve

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

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