Change is NOT Coming to the Pro-Life Movement: Worn Out Rhetoric Greets Obama Appointments

Everyone is back to work from the holidays, starting a new year in anticipation of a new presidency, but the rhetoric coming from the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition is old school, retro, tinny, out of touch. Clearly they are having a hard time understanding the results of the past two elections, because they are stuck in their glory days of 2004.

According to the Washington Times:

Social conservatives and pro-life activists are mobilizing against President-elect Barack Obama‘s pick Monday for the No. 3 Justice Department job, a lawyer who aided the effort to remove Terry Schiavo‘s feeding tube during the landmark right-to-die case four years ago.

It is unusual for special interest groups to wage a fight over a
sub-Cabinet appointment, but conservatives eager to press the
Republican Party to mount some form of opposition to the emerging Obama
administration say Thomas J. Perrelli‘s
resume as a private lawyer and his appointment Monday as the nation’s
associate attorney general may provide the rallying cry.


Rallying Cry? Really? 

The Terri Schiavo case in 2004 was a turning point for many Americans, when they began to see social conservatives for who they really were — meddlesome people who would use every court, branch of government and even have President Bush rush back to DC from vacation to sign hastily passed legislation — all in the service of rejecting individual liberty and privacy.

Then the polls came out. Americans watching the spectacle daily on cable news thought Michael and Terri Schiavo had clearly made the case that she did not want to live in a persistent vegetative state. 

Voters rejection of social conservatives on the Schiavo case wasn’t the only reason, but it was a contributing factor to the Democrats winning 2006 Congressional mid-term elections. 

But you wouldn’t know that listening to the stale rhetoric being used in 2009 to oppose Obama appointments to the Justice Department:

Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values
Coalition, derided Mr. Perrelli’s selection as "just another
death-peddler Obama has added to his list of nominees." She said he’s
earned the nickname among pro-lifers of "Piranha Perrelli" for his work
on the case.

Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Family
Research Council, said several end-of-life issues could make their way
to the federal level in the next four years and having Mr. Perrelli at
the department means pro-life causes would have a tougher time winning
those debates."If the Justice Department isn’t going to do anything about it, the
states, what’s to stop them from cases like Schiavo and even worse
cases," Mr. McClusky said.

The Schiavo case is still raw for many pro-life activists, though
Miss Lafferty said some senators "are skittish about the whole thing."


They should be skittish. "Pro-life" leaders pushed conservative politicians too far on the Schiavo issue in 2004 and even Florida Gov. Jeb Bush started to retreat as the polling suggested Americans were not following their lead.  If social conservatives didn’t get it after the 2006 election, it sure would seem they could read the writing on the wall after losing overwhelmingly in 2008. The White House, Congress, and five ballot initiatives all went against social con values.

According to the Washington Times, other Obama Justice Department appointments that include David Ogden, a
former assistant attorney general and chief of staff to then-Attorney
General Janet Reno, to be deputy attorney general; Elana Kagan, dean of
Harvard Law School, to be solicitor general; and Dawn Johnsen, a law
professor and former legal director of the National Abortion and
Reproductive Rights Action League, to head the Office of Legal Council.


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  • invalid-0

    I didn’t follow the Schivo case too closely. All I remember was that the husband, I think, wanted Terri off the feeding tube but her parents wanted to take her home.
    I never could figure out why he didn’t just divorce her and let her parents have at it.
    The whole thing didn’t make sense. I just get the feeling we don’t know what was really going on.

  • colleen

    "I never could figure out why he didn’t just divorce her and let her parents have at it."


    He didn’t divorce her because his wife, like so many other people, had said she did to not wish to be forced to ‘live’ in the manner she was ‘living’. He was honouring her wishes. Naturally and inevitably, social conservatives behaved shamefully and did everything they could to smear his name and question his motives.

    I did follow this case closely and agree with Scott that this was the point where social conservatism and the GOP jumped the shark and folks started seeing the religious right (and the Republican party) for what they are as they became increasingly uncomfortable with the influence a tiny, fanatical minority had on our government in their attempts to force their belief systems on the rest of us. Michael Schivo was an incredibly sympathetic figure and, IMHO, a good and decent man. I believe that he has written a book about this episode.


  • scott-swenson

    I too followed this very closely, and Colleen is absolutely right. In several court hearings over the years Terri was in a persistent vegetative state it was determined that she communicated to her husband she did not want to be kept alive. The law very clearly states that spouses have rights in these situations that parents do not and I always understood Mr. Schiavo’s motivations as honoring his wife’s wishes, often in the face of the most vitriolic and unseemly attacks from the Schindler family and their hired political operatives, as well as hangers-on like Randall Terry from Operation Rescue who seem to show up wherever there are TV cameras. This was indeed a major turning point in the national psyche with respect to social con values, so if the Family Research Council and Traditional Values Coalition want to rehash it again four years later — I say bring it on and keep it fresh in the voter’s minds — 2010 mid-terms are only two years away.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    Scott, you obviously are misleading readers about the Schiavo case:

    “Clearly they are having a hard time understanding the results of the past two elections, because they are stuck in their glory days of 2004.”

    Never mind that Terri was killed in March 2004 and the November 2004 elections, the first to follow her death, produced tremendous results for the pro-life movement. The more recent election, including the recent presidential election, had nothing to do with her death and everything to do with unrelated issues (namely the economy).

    “they began to see social conservatives for who they really were — meddlesome people who … rejecting individual liberty and privacy.”

    Actually, it was Terri’s former husband who had cheated on her by living with another woman and having two children with her, who clearly rejected Terri’s individual liberty and privacy. He could just have easily let Terri’s family care for her and pay for appropriate medical care and treatment — without costing him a dime. But that wouldn’t have served the cause of euthanasia.

    And you fail to explain how starving and dehydrating Terri to death promotes individual liberty. What about her right to choose?

    “Then the polls came out. Americans watching the spectacle daily on cable news thought Michael and Terri Schiavo had clearly made the case…”

    No, they did not.

    An April 2005 Zogby poll showed Americans clearly supporting Terri and her parents and wanting to protect the lives of other disabled patients.

    The Zogby poll found that, if a person becomes incapacitated and has not expressed their preference for medical treatment, as in Terri’s case, 43 percent say “the law presume that the person wants to live, even if the person is receiving food and water through a tube” while just 30 percent disagree.

    Another Zogby question hit directly on Terri’s circumstances.

    “If a disabled person is not terminally ill, not in a coma, and not being kept alive on life support, and they have no written directive, should or should they not be denied food and water,” the poll asked.

    A whopping 79 percent said the patient should not have food and water taken away while just 9 percent said yes.

    The poll also lent support to members of Congress to who passed legislation seeking to prevent Terri’s starvation death and help her parents take their lawsuit to federal courts.

    “When there is conflicting evidence on whether or not a patient would want to be on a feeding tube, should elected officials order that a feeding tube be removed or should they order that it remain in place,” respondents were asked.

    Some 18 percent said the feeding tube should be removed and 42 percent said it should remain in place.

    “she did not want to live in a persistent vegetative state.”

    Terri was never in a so-called persistent vegetative state.

    Dr. Joseph Fins of New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center reviewed Schiavo’s medical records for the Florida Department of Children and Families.

    Fins indicated Terri’s condition was misdiagnosed and that she was more likely in a state of minimal consciousness rather than a PVS patient as courts and many media outlets have alleged. Such a minimally conscious condition is sometimes mistaken for a persistent vegetative state, Fins explained.

    Dr. William Cheshire of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, also believed Terri is minimally conscious rather than a PVS patient.

  • scott-swenson


    Thanks for writing. Can you tell us who commissioned the Zogby poll and provide a link to the poll? I know Zogby works both sides of the fence, but for some reason their polls for social con groups, like the National Abstinence Education Association, are always just a little suspect.  Harris Interactive did a poll, themselves, not for a client with a stake in the debate, that clearly showed Americans disapproved of the way President Bush, Governor Bush and the Congress were handling the matter.  The Harris poll was confirmed by Gallup, ABC and other media polls, also not done for clients but to actually learn what the public thought about the issue. 

    There were many experts that testified and consistently the courts that heard all the expert testimony came down on the side of Michael and Terri Schiavo, not the Schindlers.  Only the far-right politicians, beholden to social cons, kept the issue alive by using the executive and legislative branches and their paid lobbyists to keep the court rulings from being enforced. Steve, if you are right about the polling — why aren’t more politicians embracing your side of the issue now? Why is it that the more people learn about "pro-life" policies and they ways in which they interfere with individual rights and liberty do they increasingly turn away?


    As for Terri’s rights, they were expressed by her husband and the courts who sat through hours and hours of testimony sided with him. The protesters and soundbites by extreme far-right "pro-lifers" played well to the TV cameras, but the justice system that actually saw all the evidence ruled in the Schiavo’s favor. Only far-right politicians kept the issue from being resolved.


    As for your point about starvation and dehydration, what too few people know is that is how many people in this country choose to die. If you think that is barbaric Steve, I would think you would support compassionate laws like Death with Dignity which have worked flawlessly in Oregon and just received overwhelming support from voters in Washington as well as a favorable ruling from a court in Montana.  People choose to starve themselves because it is the only legal way in the other states for them to have a measure of control to bring their end stage suffering to an end. They simply stop eating and drinking and health care workers in every state slowly increase pain medications so that the effects of starvation and dehydration are not felt by the patient. How many times have families been told by nurses "we’ll make sure they are comfortable"? The process can take up to two weeks for a person to die, but many people who have sat vigil with loved ones know that there comes a time in many people’s journeys where they make the only affirmative choice they can and suffer through to the end.  In states with Death with Dignity laws, patients can avoid that and remain alert and in touch with family and friends. Most importantly, where these laws have passed – as demonstrated in Oregon for more than a decade now – end of life care has improved for everyone. The data from the Oregon Department of Health and many, many independent epidemiological studies clearly demonstrates that the peace of mind these laws create is a benefit and actually extends many people’s lives.  Pro-life?


    But to your point, Terri was not able to articulate her decision to anyone after her fall, and the courts relied on and sided with her husband after much testimony. If any good came from this tragic family dispute used by "pro-lifers" to score political points and raise money as it was played out on television, it was that many Americans got advance directives, health care power of attorney or living will documents to ensure that their wishes were known by family and medical professionals.

    Steve, I’m not the one misleading people about the Schiavo case nor are people who fight for individual rights and liberty the people who are trying to tell Americans how they have to live and die. Progressive policies on a range of social issues from birth to death are about honoring the individual journey and respecting the private and personal medical decisions each of us faces at some point, in some way in our lives.  The law should not prohibit or perscribe — it should be as neutral as possible and ensure safety and that all parties concerned are heard, but that ultimately it is the individual who is dying whose voice matters most. If someone wants every technology possible to keep them alive, they should have it. If they want a peaceful death faced with no alternative but suffering, they should be able to choose that too within the carefully crafted safeguards that Oregon has proved work well to protect from abuse. I respect you as an individual Steve, with your own values and beliefs and support you in the private medical decisions you make for your life.  Why won’t "pro-lifers" extend the same respect to terminally ill individuals who simply believe differently than you? Why must you decide what is right for someone else? I can’t find that passage anywhere in the Bible or other religious text or in the Constitution, the one that says you get to decide for everyone else.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    Thanks, Scott. I too followed the Terry Schiavo fiasco closely, not least because it played out in Pinellas Park, Florida, which is contiguous with my home town of St. Petersburg.

    In line with your comment, after Ms. Schiavo died, my wife and I paid a lawyer $1000 we couldn’t comfortably afford to update our wills and prepare durable powers of attorney and advance medical directives. We did this precisely to guard against religious zealots going into court and telling the judge they know better than we do what our end-of-life decisions should be because they know god’s will. I carry copies of these documents (for both of us) on my person whenever we travel together. It is a sorry comment on the state of affairs in this country that I feel obliged to do this, but the situation is what it is.

    Let’s hear your reaction to this, Steve. Do you actually believe government should prohibit my wife and me from doing this because it doesn’t coincide with your religious opinions? Your comment certainly left me with the impression that you do.

  • invalid-0

    it’s good that you carry those documents on your person gordon, becuase i know from personal experience that those directives aren’t always followed (even when readily avaible and perfectly clear) without a court order.

    when my grandfather fell ill a few years ago (a couple years before terry), his will expressly called that he was not to be resuscitated or put on a feeding tube or anything that would prolong his life beyond the point of recovery. the hospital/nursing home (i’m not clear on which) refused to honor this request until my dad (his son) got a court order to make the follow it.

  • scott-swenson

    Thanks for your comments Gordon and Anonymous is right, the sad fact is that even with properly executed documents, our “death is failure” medical system (that makes money by doing more and more procedures) too often ignores them. Having a strong patient advocate at your bedside is also paramount. I actually had to face this myself a few years ago and went to extraordinary lengths prior to a procedure to make certain the medical staff would honor my wishes, and not do CYA procedures to avoid lawsuits. That we have to fight for these basic rights of self-determination speaks to the strangle hold vested interests and ideologues have over us.

    Families are already dealing with enough emotion when a loved one is sick or suddenly facing death as a result of accident — the last thing they should have to worry about is fighting to honor the wishes of their family member. Where is the compassion in that?

    But Steve and his friends on the far-right have lost sight of things like free will, liberty and privacy. They will continue to try to force women to give birth even when it risks the health of the mother, to prevent teaching young people to be respectful and responsible with their sexual health based on facts, to prevent people who love one another from joining together to create stable families and honor their love in commitment, and they will continue to deny that at death, it is only the dying person’s wishes, beliefs and decisions that matter. Meddlesome indeed.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    Gordon, no pro-life advocate is going to tell you what medical deicsion you should make — that’s some strawman argument you’re setting up. But that wasn’t the issue here. The issue was Terri’s husband making the decision for her and subjecting her to a painful 13-day starvation and dehydration death. Surely you would oppose someone making such a decision for you! Then why discriminate against Terri?

  • invalid-0

    Scott, I provided the questions in the poll, but I know it is easier to dismiss them than acknowledge that Americans may not support your position in favor of letting Terri’s former husband euthanize her.

    As far as other polls are concerned, Scott, do you mean the ABC News poll that used an inaccurate question?

    ABC News, in March 2005, asked respondents whether they “or oppose the decision to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube.”

    However, the question included a lengthy introduction that claimed, “Doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible” and that Terri “has been on life support for 15 years.” However, Terri was never on life support and breathed entirely on her own without the assistance of a ventilator.

    “Steve, if you are right about the polling — why aren’t more politicians embracing your side of the issue now?”

    Other than Barack Obama and a handful of others there are very few members of Congress who have backtracked from the unanimous Senate vote and overwhelmingly bipartisan House vote supporting Terri’s parents.

    “There were many experts that testified and consistently the courts that heard all the expert testimony came down on the side of Michael and Terri Schiavo, not the Schindlers.”

    Well that’s no surprise when the medical experts the Schindlers brought to the table were a) prevented from testifying in court and b) prevented by Michael Schiavo from examining Terri. Of course the courts came to that conclusion when the presentation of the facts was one-sided.

    “As for Terri’s rights, they were expressed by her husband and the courts who sat through hours and hours of testimony sided with him.”

    Again, a one sided presentation. They did not hear from a good friend of Terri’s who said she would have wanted to live and made a comment after seeing a euthanasia documentary to that effect. And Michael changed his mind on what Terri wanted only after he gave up on her care.

    And you know the assisted suicide laws have NOT worked flawlessly in Oregon. With the people given death over medicine, the lack of psychological consults, the studies showing abuses, etc. that’s a joke.

    We’re not the ones deciding for anyone else. You backed Michael killing Terri and taking her life. Talk about being completely hypocritical.

  • invalid-0


    Two points: (1) Your statement that “no pro-life advocate is going to tell you what medical decision you should make” is simply wrong. If you would not attempt to make such decisions for me, I thank you for that. I doubt this, however, since (2) you assume without knowing me or anything about me that “surely you would oppose someone making such a decision for you!” In fact, I specifically asked our lawyer to word my medical power of attorney so that my wife, or a court, could make that decision if it needed to be made and I was unable to do so. Your paternalistic attitude that my opinions about how I wish my life to end must coincide with yours is precisely what I find unacceptable.

    Furthermore, in saying that, you sidestepped my original question. I have specifically stated in my legal documents that I do not want my life prolonged in the same way Terri Schiavo’s life was. Now, do you believe that government should forbid me to do this, or not? If so, what possible justification can you give besides that my decision offends your religious sensibilities? If not, then please say that explicitly.

  • scott-swenson

    Steve, so you won’t name the Zogby client for the poll, hmmmm. I provided an unbiased Harris poll and a simple google search turns up Gallup and other media polls that are in line with Harris, leaving Zogby as the outlier. They often have "client problems" especially with culturally conservative groups more interested in manipulating public opinion.  When I said why aren’t more politicians on your side I wasn’t just referring to Schiavo — but thanks for pointing out that several have said they would like to have that vote back.  Polling – other than that your side pays for – clearly shows that on a range of cultural issues the demographic trends are moving toward progressive values that respect individual liberty and privacy, especially when it comes to the most personal and private issues in life.  Your side has very clearly set forth its case and what it believes during the past eight years, and really for most of the past 25-30 years. Americans have listened, and even bought into it for a while, but reality cuts through the smoke and mirrors eventually, and now people are interested in real solutions that work. Your side doesn’t believe in compromise on anything, so progressives will pass laws that will teach facts about sexual health, prevent unintended pregnancies, respect all families, and ensure that at the end of a life well lived, the person who is dying will not become a political football to be tossed about by lobbyists, ideologues and politicians. Facts are facts Steve — your side hasn’t been winning much lately and the trend in the polls doesn’t look good as younger people see through the stale rhetoric you peddle.  Historically politics in America goes in cycles and it appears the social con era has come to a close, rather anti-climactically you must agree.  A generation or two from now the history books might treat the era with a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph, and people will wonder how the cultural issues ever came to divide us, how our politics got so petty and degrading simply because social cons could not respect people who believed differently than they did.  No one is telling anyone what to do Steve, on our side, we’re simply trying to ensure that law is neutral, allows individuals to make their own personal decisions, and does what government is supposed to do, put safeguards in place to punish people who abuse the spirit of the law. America is about respecting the individual journey, and for many us, so is our faith.


    For readers interested in learning the facts from the Oregon Health Department about how well the Death with Dignity law works there, more than a decade of reports can be found online at the Death with Dignity National Center website.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    I wasn’t too sure what happend with Schivo as well. This post has helped me understand it more. I agree that the husband should have just divorced and let the parents handle the situation. However, why in the world did the U.S. Gov’t feel like it could get involved in such a case? That was even more disturbing to me.