After learning of Terri Schiavo’s death Thursday, members of Congress, who recently seized on the case as a chance to promote right-to-life agendas, said that they felt saddened by the passing of the 41-year-old who suffered brain damage 15 years ago, and vowed to take a closer look at the broader issue of disabled individuals.
Lawmakers, spending time at home in their final week of Easter recess, urged their colleagues to use the case as a lesson and try to pass the broad measure that was introduced by the House but was rejected by senators who wanted legislation specifically tailored to the Florida woman.
The House bill, lawmakers said, could be used in any case when incapacitated individuals do not have a written will or an advanced medical directive in place and there were questions about withholding food and medical treatment.
“Terri’s will to live should serve as an inspiration and impetus for action,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the House Judiciary Committee chairman and a co-sponsor of the House legislation. “I am hopeful the Senate will join the House in passing the Protection of Incapacitated Persons Act to assist those whose circumstances mirror Terri Schiavo’s and ensure others with disabilities do not receive the same treatment by our legal system.”
Schiavo’s death also angered Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., who introduced the House measure with Sensenbrenner at the beginning of March. Weldon said Schiavo “had her life ended” and urged members of Congress to prevent this from happening again to another disabled individual.
“This is a distressing chapter in American history that should make us re-examine what we mean by declaring ourselves a compassionate nation when those with special needs are treated this way.”
Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, have begun to look at their own version of the issue of disabled individuals, senior Senate staff members said on Thursday. Both senators are working on a bill that would provide for additional federal court reviews in cases where the wishes of incapacitated individuals are unknown and there is a dispute among family members.
Harkin and his staff members have spent much of the Easter recess meeting with legal experts and members of the disabled community and hope to introduce a bill when Congress returns to work next week.
“The Schiavo case is something that raised the profile on these issues and it shows what can happen when there’s a dispute in the family,” said Maureen Knightly, a press secretary for Harkin. “Senator Harkin wants a bill that addresses the underlying issues of incapacitated individuals.”
Other lawmakers, who openly voiced their opinions and helped lead the congressional effort that enabled Schiavo’s parents to take their case to federal court last week, did not discuss their plans to support any future legislation. Some members of Congress expressed their sympathy for Schiavo’s relatives while others simply vented their frustration about the case.
“Mrs. Schiavo’s death is a moral poverty and a legal tragedy,” said House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas. “This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change.”
He added: “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today.”
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he hoped “that this tragic case would encourage all Americans to have a living will.”
At the White House, President Bush said that in cases like Schiavo’s, where there are serious doubts and questions, “the presumption should be in the favor of life.”
“I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the will of others.”
In Tallahassee, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been criticized for failing to intervene in the final days of the tumultuous battle that divided a family and a nation, said Schiavo’s death is “a window through which we can see many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society.”
“For that,” he said, “we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us.”
(Reach Amie Parnes at parnesm(at)shns.com)