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Is the GOP creating another “Terri Schiavo Moment?”

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With its contraception battle in full bloom, the GOP appears to be searching for another Terri Schiavo moment in which big government actions replace conservative, small government thinking.

Terri Schiavo was the comatose woman whose husband wanted to take her off life support. In 2005, President George W. Bush and the Republican-led Congress attempted to legislate away her husband’s right to make that decision on the basis that Schiavo might still have brain function.  Her physicians had long held that she was in a permanent vegetative state.

The courts eventually intervened and allowed Schiavo’s husband to “pull the plug” on his wife. An autopsy revealed that her brain was, indeed, non viable.

During the political melee over Schiavo, I wondered how it would feel to have the federal government questioning a personal decision between husband and wife.  The same thoughts crossed my mind as contraception became the issue du jour for most Republicans and some Democrats.  What right does the government have stepping into this personal health issue for women and families?

Physician Ami Bera, M.D. sees the same problem, but from a medical perspective.  He authored an article in the Huffington Post in which he argued that the government was overreaching by forcing itself into his exam room.

“Members of Congress take their own oath when they are sworn in as elected leaders,” Bera, who is also a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives, wrote in his post.  “They swear to uphold the Constitution, and to defend it against all enemies. But nowhere in their oath of office are they required to protect the medical health and well-being of their constituents.  That fact was driven home to me over the last few weeks as I watched members of Congress play politics with the health and well being of the women in this country.”

Bera went on to argue that this was not a matter of religious freedom since he allows individual patients to make moral choices for themselves.

“[T]he oath I swore explicitly requires that I respect patient autonomy,” he wrote.  “My job as a physician is to make sure I have provided my patients with the best options to make the decisions that affect their lives.”

Journalist Leslie Bennetts, writing in the Daily Beast, says the entire contraception brouhaha is a case of what she calls Christian hysteria:

“Every election year generates a new round of sanctimonious baloney from conservative Christians who purport to speak for every American in defining what the United States is all about…. Lost in all the overheated rhetoric is a crucial principle: the freedom from a dominant or state-sanctioned religion and its dictates is far more fundamental to American history and everything this country is actually supposed to stand for than any individual church or faith has ever been.”

Bennetts cites statistics that show decreasing connections between American citizens and specific faiths, including an increase in mixed marriages, then frames the issue in partisan terms:

“Democrats see such efforts as a Republican drive to restrict women’s access to health care, which seems self-evident. And yet Republicans continue to insist that what’s at stake is religious freedom, and that the Obama administration is infringing upon their religious rights by attempting to guarantee vital components of women’s health care.”

The Schiavo case was similarly framed by Republicans as a right-to-life issue with religious overtones.  That turned out to be a sham way of imposing the federal government on a private matter.  I suspect that months from now we’ll view the contraception controversy in much the same light.

Importantly, how the public – and especially women – see this issue may well determine the outcome of the 2012 elections.

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