Remember the Party of Terri Schiavo?

Protesters demanding political intervention to keep Terri Schiavo on life support. Photo: Matt May/Getty Images

You don’t have to know much political history to become deeply unsettled by the recent public muttering by selected conservative voices that the benefits of reopening the economy might justify the otherwise avoidable deaths of a lot of unproductive old and sick folk who could succumb to the coronavirus pandemic. As my colleague Sarah Jones argued compellingly:

 The views expressed by [Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan] Patrick and [First Things editor Rusty] Reno and [Trump adviser Stephen] Moore … separate human life into categories. In one box, there are people worth saving. In the other, there are people we ought to let die … What they contemplate is not quite mass murder, but a sort of planned negligent homicide. Patrick doesn’t want to build gas chambers. He just wants to let nature take its course. The fit will survive the cull.

And here history is instructive. Eugenics, as a form of human culling, was a pseudoscientific movement that gained lethal strength in the early 20th century and became official state doctrine in various regimes where murdering or starving “useless eaters” was regarded as essential to the public welfare or even to the health and welfare of the human species. Horror of human culling was deeply bred into the generations of Americans and Europeans who sought to identify civilization itself with the rejection of mass homicide. That this horror might be fading is disturbing enough. But that the idea is posting a comeback among American conservatives is particularly shocking, since not that very long ago that political tribe habitually accused liberals of an openness to euthanasia as a byproduct of legalized abortion.

Remember Terri Schiavo, whose cause embroiled the country during the spring of 2005? She was the severely brain-damaged Florida woman whose agonized husband became embroiled in a legal battle with her parents as he sought to terminate life support, which he felt certain she would have wished. That legal battle became intensely political as Terri Schiavo was adopted as a sort of mascot by the anti-abortion movement as evidence of its claim that the indifference to life exhibited by legalized abortion would eventually lead to euthanasia. Florida governor Jeb Bush spearheaded a state government intervention in her case in 2003 to force reinsertion of a feeding tube, and later Jeb’s brother signed “emergency” legislation, enacted during a remarkable March 2005 special session of the Republican-controlled Congress, to assert federal jurisdiction over Schiavo’s fate. She was finally allowed a dignified death when federal courts refused to overrule a local judge’s decision to let the poor woman go.

Where’s that Republican Party as some of its opinion leaders express equanimity about tolerating, if not encouraging, mass death in the cause of giving the economy a nice lift prior to the 2020 elections? Who’s the Party of Death (a common epithet for Democrats among anti-abortion activists) now?

It’s particularly striking that there are elements of the very anti-abortion movement that fought to keep Schiavo alive that are expressing pleasure over the net effect of the coronavirus, since it has allowed some GOP lawmakers to halt abortions as a byproduct of “elective surgery” bans:

Texas Republican congressional candidate Kathaleen Wall thanked Governor Greg Abbott for signing an executive order last week that deemed abortions “medically unnecessary,” with Wall claiming the coronavirus may now save more lives than it will take.

Wall, who advanced from the 22nd Congressional District Republican primary earlier this month, has posted several articles discussing pregnancy and coronavirus and touting President Donald Trump’s ability to “put partisan politics aside” as he fights the COVID-19 pandemic. But Wall’s March 24 Facebook post claiming coronavirus will “save more lives this week than it takes” created exactly that type of partisan fighting between pro-choice and anti-abortion residents.

I’m not calling Republicans generally eugenicists or fans of euthanasia. But it is a sign of the cult of personality into which this party and its ideological allies have succumbed that the desire to lift Trump to reelection on the wings of economic recovery is so powerful, “pro-life” values be damned. And conservatives who do know their history need to shout down the Evangelists of “GDP über alles” with special determination.

Remember the Party of Terri Schiavo?