WASHINGTON - Two and a half years after Terri Schiavo became a celebrated cause among Republican leaders, the party's leading presidential candidates have expressed opposition to the way Congress intervened in the case, a sharp departure from past Republican strategy.
The break was highlighted this week when former US senator Fred Thompson joined three other leading Republican candidates in opposing Congress' effort in 2005 to allow the Schiavos to take their daughter's life support case to federal court. Thompson added an emotional element, saying he was part of a family decision about the fate of his daughter, Betsy Panici, who died at a Nashville hospital after being unconscious for six days following an apparent drug overdose.
The stand by the presidential candidates has proved disheartening to Schiavo's family, which fought to keep the comatose woman on life support. Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler, said he believes Republican candidates don't understand his sister's case. In a telephone interview, he said he will write this week to each candidate.
"I want to personally talk with them about Terri's case," he said. "They need to be fully informed. There obviously exists a lot of confusion about my sister's situation."
Thompson had been criticized in September for saying he was unfamiliar with the details of the Schiavo case. On Monday, he said in response to a reporter's question that he did know the details but felt "a little bit uncomfortable about that because it is an intensely personal thing with me."
"I had to face a situation like that on a personal level with my own daughter," he said.
There appear to be significant differences between the two cases. The Schiavo family was bitterly divided about whether to remove her feeding tube 15 years after she went into a vegetative state, but there has been no public indication of disagreement in the Thompson family about the decision in her case.
Thompson didn't say whether the family ended life support for his daughter, but he left that impression when he said: "These things need to be decided by the family. And I was at that bedside. And I had to make those decisions with the rest of my family."
The Thompson campaign, asked yesterday to clarify whether Thompson's daughter had been on life support, said it would not go beyond the limited remarks the candidate made. Betsy Panici, 38, was brought to the hospital by her husband, Ronald, and died of a drug overdose, according to a report by a local medical examiner. Thompson has said that after her death on Jan. 30, 2002, he didn't have the heart to run for reelection.
The distancing of the candidates from the Schiavo case was evident at a meeting of 2,500 evangelical activists in Washington last weekend, the "Values Voter Summit," which Schindler attended. The Schiavo case was not mentioned by the major presidential candidates who attended and was not a big topic of discussion among attendees, many of whom were focused on antiabortion efforts. A candidate who embraced the Schiavo case and had been endorsed by Schindler, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, dropped out of the race Friday.
Three other Republican candidates, appearing in a debate earlier this year, expressed their objections to Congress' involvement in the Schiavo case. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said, "the decision of Congress to get involved was a mistake." Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said the matter was a family dispute. Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was initially supportive of the intervention, said Congress "acted too hastily."
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is counting on Christian conservative support to raise his standing the polls, told the St. Petersburg Times earlier this year, "I wasn't sure how the federal government had a role in all that."
Schindler said his sister's case should not be viewed as an end-of-life issue "because she wasn't dying." He said a state judge's ruling effectively depriving Schiavo of food and water was sentencing her to death, and so he asked Congress to let the case go to the federal courts. Normally such cases would remain at the state level, but Congress agreed to make an exception for the Schiavo case. But the federal courts, up to the Supreme Court, did not accept the case. Schiavo's feeding tube was disconnected, and she died.
Schindler said Congress did the right thing by enabling the family to go to federal court, but he said the congressional action often has been misunderstood to mean that Congress directly tried to prolong his sister's life.
At the time, Republicans believed that the Schiavo case would become a symbolic issue, similar to the way abortion has become a signature issue for many in the party. During the debate in Congress, it was revealed that an aide to Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida, had written a memo saying the Schiavo case was "a great political issue" for the GOP and "a tough issue for Democrats . . . This is an important moral issue and the prolife base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue."
But John Green, a senior fellow with The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said yesterday that the debate, the Schiavo case in particular, has proved far more divisive than abortion among religious conservatives.
"There was an enormous negative public reaction to what was seen as overreaching by the Congress and the president," Green said. "The sense of overreaching was very widespread, including among many Christian conservatives."
Polls taken at the time indicated that 70 percent of those surveyed believed it was inappropriate for Congress to get involved in the case, and 67 percent thought elected officials became involved to gain political advantage.