White House: Schiavo Bill Not a Precedent


Associated Press | March 21, 2005

WASHINGTON - The White House said Monday that an extraordinary law allowing a federal court to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case was narrowly tailored and not intended as a precedent for Congress to step into battles over the fate of seriously disabled or terminally ill patients.

President Bush ( news -web sites ), who rushed back to the White House from Texas, was awakened to sign the bill shortly after it was approved by the House at 12:42 a.m. Monday and then rushed to him by staff secretary Brett Kavanaugh. Bush stepped outside his bedroom and signed it at 1:11 a.m., standing in the hall of his private residence.

Senior White House aides had been consulting with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the case for several days, and the Justice Department ( news -web sites ) had provided "technical support" to congressional lawyers, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said as Bush flew to Tucson, Ariz., for a speech

Bush, in a written statement, promised to "stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans, including those with disabilities."

"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," he said.

The law gave Schiavo's parents the right to file suit in federal court over the withdrawal of nourishment and medical treatment needed to sustain their daughter, who suffered severe brain damage 15 years ago.

"Tonight we have given Terri Schiavo all we could a chance to live," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. "After four days of words, the best of them uttered in prayer, Congress has acted and a life may have been saved."

The bill passed the House after an often wrenching debate. It won the backing of virtually all the Republicans and almost half the Democrats who sprinted back to the Capitol for the debate, while 174 of the House's 435 elected members did not vote.

House Republicans scrambled to yank lawmakers back from a two-week Easter recess and amass the 218 votes necessary to bring the bill to a vote. The Senate approved the measure on Sunday by voice vote in a nearly empty chamber.

Several lawmakers recounted their families' struggles with decisions about caring for incapacitated relatives in an often emotional debate over who should decide life and death.

Many Republicans said Terri Schiavo isn't in the hopeless state that her husband portrays.

"We have heard very moving accounts of people close to Terri that she is, indeed, very much alive," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "She laughs, she cries and she smiles with those around her."

Some Democrats countered that elected lawmakers weren't qualified to make a medical diagnosis or second-guess the decisions made by Florida courts.

"I don't know who's right and who's wrong, but that's the point. Neither do my colleagues," said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.

A few Republicans questioned the motives of Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael, suggesting he doesn't have his wife's best interest at heart.

"Now, he has had her feeding tube removed and sentenced her to a most excruciating death, citing Terri's own wishes as the rationale ..." said Rep. Jim Ryun ( news ,bio ,voting record ), R-Kan. "Michael did not remember this supposed request until years after Terri's initial injuries when a cash settlement was awarded to her, a settlement he would stand to inherit."

And a few Democrats lobbed accusations at Republicans that political motives drove their passion for Schiavo and her parents.

"If you don't want a decision to be made politically, why in the world do you ask 535 politicians to make it? Does anyone think that this decision will be made without consideration of electoral support or party or ideology? Of course not," said Rep. Barney Frank ( news ,bio ,voting record ), D-Mass.

Republican supporters said the "Palm Sunday Compromise" seeks to protect the rights of a disabled person. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the law would not affect state assisted suicide laws nor serve as a precedent for future legislation.

McClellan said he was unaware of any discussions in the White House for Congress to take broader action covering other patients like Schiavo.

"This is an extraordinary case," he said. "It is a complex case where serious questions and signficant doubts have been raised." He said it was unclear what Schiavo's wishes were, and he noted that her parents had offered to care for her.

Asked if Bush would sign a broader bill, McClellan said, "That's speculative at this point."

He also would not say what action the White House would support if the federal district court upholds the state court decision to permit the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, hinting only that alternatives have already been discussed.

"We've looked at options that were available previously," McClellan said. "We'll see what happens with the court now."

Bush is adamantly opposed to legalizing physician assisted-suicide, as in an Oregon law. "The president believes that a culture of life is built on valuing life at all stages," McClellan said.


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