One of my favourite things about my new French class is that it's geared toward EU workers, so we discuss news and current events in class. This morning we were talking about the Eluana Englaro debate going on in Italy right now. Interestingly, when I mentioned that the situation is virtually identical to what happened with Terry Schiavo three years ago in the United States, I found that no one actually knew about the Schiavo case (I'm the only American in the class). Although it had little international relevance, the Schiavo episode was one of the biggest domestic political events of the last several years in the United States.
Scanning the Belgian, French and British papers today I have been unable to find a single mention of the Italian case's similarities with the Schiavo case. But considering that the spectacle which took place in the US senate during the Schiavo episode was one of the contributing factors to the downfall of the Republican Party, Italian conservatives may want to take a lesson and reign in their rhetoric on this issue.
Eluana Englaro, 38, had been in a coma in Italy since 1992 following a car accident. Her father, wishing to end her suffering, has been trying to have her feeding tube removed for the past ten years. Recently the Italian courts ruled definitively that her father does have the right to remove her feeding tube. This sparked a mad rush by anti-euthanasia advocates to get the government to prevent him from doing so. The Catholic Church became involved, and soon the Italian senate was holding emergency sessions to pass a law forcing Englaro's father to reinsert the feeding tube, with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi leading the charge. Berlusconi made an emergency decree that would have forced the doctors to reinsert the tube, but the move was blocked by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who said it was unconstitutional for the prime minister to overrule the courts. As the senate held an emergency session Monday night, news reached the chamber that Englaro had died, prompting many of the senators to break out in tears and start sobbing. Berlusconi wasted no time quickly declaring that the president had "made a serious mistake" by blocking his decree, a not-so-veiled threat.
The whole episode has almost exactly mirrored what happened in the US three years ago. Terry Schiavo had been in a vegetative state in Florida for 15 years. Her husband was fighting to have her feeding tube removed, but her parents wanted it to remain in. After courts ruled that Terri's husband had the right to remove the tube, the parents enlisted the help of anti-euthanasia groups to lobby the government. After the feeding tube was removed for the first time in 2003, the Florida legislature got involved, hastily passing "Terri's Law," which gave Florida governor Jeb Bush (George W's brother) the authority to intervene in the case and send police to remove Schiavo from the hospital and forcibly reinsert her feeding tube. Two years later the courts found "Terry's Law" unconstitutional and the tube was removed again. The issue then went national, and the US congress in Washington held an emergency session late at night in which Republicans loudly and dramatically condemned the "murder" of Schiavo and worked to hastily pass legislation forcing the courts to reinsert the tube immediately. The debate received huge headlines and live TV coverage in the US. One of the more famous events during this spectacle was when Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a former surgeon, insisted that he had "diagnosed" Schiavo as functional and healthy, based solely on a video he had seen of her.
Much of the American public was revolted by the spectacle that went on in Washington during this late-night session. As the US was busy fighting two failing wars and the economy was heading toward impending disaster, the congress was busy debating for a week about whether to insert a tube into a woman in Florida. Many accused the Republican party of cynically exploiting this personal family tragedy for political gain, seeing an opportunity to curry avour with the religious right, who were starting to become disillusioned with the party. In the end, the congress was only able to transfer the case's authority to the federal courts rather than the Florida courts, but the federal courts quickly ruled the same way as in Florida. Schiavo died on 31 March, 2005.
Shortly after, the so-called Schiavo memo surfaced, causing a political firestorm. It was essentially a talking points memo that had been written by the legal counsel to Republican Florida Senator Mel Martinez, which explicitly laid out the Republican Party's attempt to use the Schiavo issue for political gain. The secret memo stated that the Schiavo case offered "a great political issue" that would appeal to the party's core supporters and could be used against Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, because he had refused to co-sponsor the bill to keep Schiavo alive.
Remember what happened next? A year later, in the mid-term elections of 2006, the Republicans were ousted from leadership of both houses of congress in a shocking and improbable election result. The Republicans, who had effectively controlled all branches of government since 2002, were suddenly left with only the presidency (and as we've seen, that control was to quickly come to an end as well). Certainly, the public had many reasons to be discontent with six years of Republican leadership, but the Schiavo incident seemed to stand out as the moment the "do-nothing congress", which many called a rubber stamp for Bush through his first six years in office, reached the height of absurdity. The crass political calculations on display during the Schiavo debate were not something American voters forgot quickly, and it ended up being a big contributing factor to the Republicans' defeat in 2006. This time, they had crossed a line.
Berlusconi and his allies may not be intimately familiar with the Schiavo case, but they would do well to read up on it quickly. The prime minister's political position is far from secure, and the spectacle of the last week could end up backfiring if the number of religious voters he is able to attract with the showmanship is outweighed by the number of Italian voters who are disgusted by the political maneuvering. That's what happened in the US, and it's a lesson the Republican party is certainly mulling over as it now contemplates how to rebuild the party.