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Friday, April 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Schiavo's death steps up push for end-of-life legislation in U.S.

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — Terri Schiavo slipped away yesterday, dying with a stuffed animal tucked under her arm as a national debate raged about the ethics, politics and spiritual significance of her life and death.

Within minutes of the brain-damaged woman's death, social and religious conservatives vowed to crusade against federal judges who refuse to intervene in such cases, and to seek legislation to protect incapacitated patients.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who led the fight for the bill that failed to persuade federal judges to reconsider the Schiavo case, blasted "an arrogant, out-of-control judiciary that thumbed its nose at Congress."

"The legal system did not protect people who need protection most, and that will change. The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior," DeLay pledged in a statement.

"Millions of Americans were saddened by Schiavo's death," President Bush said. He lamented that Schiavo could not have been kept alive by the DeLay-inspired legislation. "The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak."

House GOP leaders vowed yesterday to pursue new legislation that would give incapacitated people new federal rights in cases of family disputes with no written instructions from the invalid. Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, said he may work on a bill with Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and advocate for the disabled.

But they may not get far.

Difficult political issue

"They may hold hearings, but this is a difficult one for Congress to take on, and may interfere with the rest of the Bush agenda," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University expert on Congress.

If nothing else, conservative Republicans in the Senate are expected to dig in further on their insistence that judicial nominees receive a vote on the floor. And when a Supreme Court seat opens, the debate over judicial temperament surely will dominate the political stage.

While Republicans were critical of the judges in the Schiavo case, conservative judges seemed at least as likely as liberals to oppose federal intervention.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, rejected the Schiavo appeal, and William Pryor, whom Bush has seated temporarily on the 11th circuit appeals court, did not dissent publicly from the decision not to hear the case. Key opinions relevant to the case were written by two conservatives on the Supreme Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.

And an appellate judge appointed by President George H.W. Bush wrote an opinion Wednesday criticizing the president and Congress for acting "in a manner demonstrably at odds with ... our Constitution."

At first, the intervention by Congress in the Schiavo case during an extraordinary Palm Sunday session was seen as a new front in the cultural war that increasingly has divided America. But public-opinion polls found most Americans solidly opposed the Republican-led efforts. And while legislation and judicial wars could result, some strategists question whether the case will have far-reaching effects at the polls.

"Anyone trying to capitalize on it runs a risk," warned Charles Cook, a Washington analyst who monitors national politics.

Already, University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato said, Democrats have lost whatever political advantage that might have come their way.

Democrats were reluctant to use the Schiavo case to their advantage out of fear the Republicans would "box them in again as the valueless, secular humanists of Congress," Sabato said. But they didn't, and he suggested the Democrats have "lost this as an issue."

But Republicans, however emboldened, should be wary of the public opinion that has jelled against them, he said. Bush, in particular, should have learned a lesson, Sabato said: "On paper, things can appear to be a big political boost, but in reality they can backfire — big time."

In the past two weeks, Bush's job-approval rating has dipped well below 50 percent in polls, the lowest of his presidency.

Religious passions

The political drama swirling over Schiavo was at least matched by the religious passions her case stirred. The Vatican took a particular interest, issuing statements that narrowed the range of acceptable conditions under which a Catholic can stop tube-feeding. After Schiavo's death yesterday, Jose Saraiva Martins — head of the Vatican's office for sainthood — called the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube "an attack on God."

As demonstrators wept and prayed outside the hospice where Schiavo died, conservative activists were vowing to exact election-time revenge on the judges and politicians who stood in the way of reinserting the tube removed from Schiavo's stomach 13 days ago.

"There will be hell to pay," said Randall Terry, the Operation Rescue founder who became the spokesman for Schiavo's parents.

Jeb Bush called "traitor"

No political figure is more entwined in the case than Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who said this week that the Schiavo case is the toughest issue he has faced in nearly seven years as governor. Bush pushed a measure through the Florida Legislature — which later was ruled unconstitutional — that allowed him to order her feeding resumed six days after her tube was removed in 2003. But some demonstrators were calling him a "traitor" yesterday because he refused to defy a court order that said he did not have authority to take custody of Schiavo.

"Terri's death is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society," the governor said.

Compiled from The Washington Post, Knight Ridder Newspapers and The Dallas Morning News

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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