Thomas Jefferson never knew Terri Schiavo. But his words resonate with relevance as we reflect on the roles that the state of Florida and the government of the United States have played in trying to protect her life. “The first duty of government is the protection of life, not its destruction,” declared Mr. Jefferson. “The chief purpose of government is to protect life. Abandon that and you have abandoned all.”
It was Jefferson who, in penning the words of the Declaration of Independence, declared that the right to life was “unalienable” because it was “endowed” to us by our Creator. Government’s role, according to this revered founding father, was to “secure” the unalienable rights conferred by the Creator on his creatures.
In the hue and cry that has surrounded the controversy concerning Terri Schiavo’s court-ordered death, many seem to have forgotten the role our Founding Fathers envisioned for government. There is a reason Mr. Jefferson and the founders attached such primacy to the right to life. The right to life is the “first” right. It is that right without which no other right can exist. The right to speak as one pleases, worship as one chooses or associate with those whom one prefers all depend upon the protection of the right to life. Without protecting the right to life, all other rights are meaningless. Even the “right to privacy,” which has been at the center of the Schiavo litigation, means nothing to a corpse. The enjoyment of all of the rights that derive from the Creator and which are secured by our Constitution and laws depend, first and foremost, upon protection of our right to life.
Critics of government intrusion into the acrimonious battle between Terri Schiavo’s husband and her family seem to have overlooked the fact that it was Michael Schiavo who first petitioned the Circuit Court of Pinellas County to authorize the starvation and dehydration death of his disabled wife. In doing so, Mr. Schiavo is the one who injected government into the controversy. Thereafter, in proceedings that accorded her substantially fewer due-process protections than afforded death-row inmates, the court not only “authorized” Terri’s death, it “ordered” her death by starvation and dehydration.
The Legislature and the governor of the state of Florida acted in the finest tradition of government when they sought to intervene to prevent Mrs. Schiavo from suffering a slow, agonizing death that would have been deemed “cruel and unusual punishment” for serial killers like Ted Bundy. The United States Congress and the president, likewise, acted in the finest Jeffersonian tradition when they sought to provide relief for Terri Schiavo.
The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “no state … shall … deprive any person of life … without due process of law.” The amendment confers on Congress the explicit power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of the amendment. Thus, acting pursuant to its constitutional authority, Congress rightly sought to provide Terri Schiavo the same rights of review that are available to death-row inmates. After all, Mrs. Schiavo will be just as dead as Ted Bundy if the Florida court order is not set aside.
Contrary to the assertions of some, Congress’ intervention did not offend principles of “states’ rights” or “federalism.” Neither states’ rights nor federalism gives a license to the states to run roughshod over the rights of American citizens. Sadly, the states have a long and sad history of giving the short shrift to the constitutional rights of vulnerable or unpopular American citizens. It is precisely because of that history that the 14th Amendment was passed in the aftermath of the Civil War.
What is most surprising about the role of government in the Schiavo case is that the courts seemed to have cast a blind eye and a deaf ear to the need to protect the rights of a frail and vulnerable citizen. Historically, courts have been a bastion for the protection of individual liberties. Traditionally, it is the courts that have been the great “equalizer” for the weak and the vulnerable and the poor and unpopular. In this case, however, and increasingly around the country, courts are becoming aiders and abettors of the strong in exploiting the weak, and accomplices of the rich in exploiting the poor.
As our country shifts away from a sanctity of life ethic and moves increasingly toward an ethos that calculates the net worth of individuals using cost-benefit ratios and quality of life calculus, who will protect us from exploitation and abuse when we become inconvenient or when we cost more to maintain than we produce? If not the government, who will stand in the gap?
Ken Connor is a trial lawyer who serves as chairman of the Center for a Just Society.