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March 21, 2005
By now, her disconcertingly animated face is familiar to all of us -- Terry Shiavo wears a permanent smile. But both her hands are clenched against her shoulders in tight little fists she can't relax. Sometimes she seems to respond to people; usually she does not. Sometimes her eyes seem able to follow motion; usually they do not.

So is this a persistent vegetative state? I am not qualified to evaluate that, but I have done enough hospital work to know that such conditions are not always what they seem on observation alone. This is an extraordinary case, House Speaker Tom Delay said last night -- but the terrible truth is that it is not at all extraordinary. Not in the least. Every doctor has seen many of them, every nurse, every pastor. There are thousands of Americans in just Terry's condition in hospitals throughout the country right now.

And so both houses of Congress hurried back to Washington -- as did the president -- to enact a law for this one tragic case. Terry's Law, I suppose it will be called, in accordance with the recent naming of laws after the person in whose memory they are tailored. And, because it is law, it will in some way become part of precedent: you argue law on the basis of law that has gone before. But perhaps it is not its content, so specific to Terry Shiavo, that will be its legacy in precedent: instead, it will be the expectation it will engender. My daughter, my son, my mother -- why can't I have an act of Congress to resolve my pain? They ran back to the Capitol for Terry Shiavo -- what about my sister? What about thirty, forty, a hundred people's sisters whose lives hang in the terrible ellipses in which Terry's lingers? Shall we have a federal law for each of them?

I am torn about Terry. I don't know what is best. But I do know that a dangerous precedent is being set in ratcheting this tragedy up to the congressional level. There is a reason why we have separation of powers, a reason why we understand the states to be competent to decide such matters themselves. Proponents of congressional intervention argue from the tragedy of this case and the innocence of its central figure. But there are thousands of tragedies every day. Millions. Millions of innocents. Congress cannot manage them all, and it must not be allowed to pick and choose those it will entertain for its own political reasons.

Hospital chaplains and compassionate doctors and nurses help families walk this terrible path every day. I wish they had been allowed to finish their work in Florida.
Copyright © 2022 Barbara Crafton
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