Wednesday, April 6, 2005


Congress yesterday held hearings to begin consideration of the quality of hospice care and the legal needs of the disabled in America, just a week after the furor over Terri Schiavo ended with the Florida woman’s death.

“Although Terri Schiavo very dramatically brought these issues to the attention of the nation, their importance did not fade or diminish with her loss,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The hearing on hospice care, legal tools for the disabled and whether any legislation might be warranted was an effort to move beyond Congress’ emergency Palm Sunday bill, intended to clear the way to reinsert Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube.

But the bitter fight that split her family also has rippled through Congress in the wake of that vote. Although no Democrats filed a formal objection to the March 20 bill, many still were seething at Congress’ intervention.

“One thing is sure: families facing these painful decisions deserve better than political theatrics from the United States Congress,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the health committee’s ranking Democrat. “Republican leaders abused their positions of power to play politics with Terri Schiavo’s life.”

Mr. Enzi’s committee, which had tried to call Mrs. Schiavo and her husband, Michael, to testify, gathered yesterday to hear from authorities on end-of-life issues, brain injuries and discrimination against disabled people to determine whether legislation might be needed for cases like Mrs. Schiavo’s.

Rud Turnbull of Lawrence, Kan., a former legal professor whose 37-year-old son, Jay, is retarded, warned the panel away from any legislation that tries to define which cases warrant life-sustaining care.

“Those debates frighten me, and they should alarm you, too,” said Mr. Turnbull, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas. “The slippery slope is slick and awaits all of us.”

He and other witnesses urged Congress to consider legislation that would, in part, better inform disabled people and their families of their health care options.

Other legislation being considered, including a bill by Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, would let federal courts review cases like Mrs. Schiavo’s when there is no advance directive and there’s a dispute over the person’s wishes.

Still other proposals include one by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who suggested an impeachment case could be made against judges who rebuffed Congress’ will.

“That to me should be of concern to Democrats and Republicans regardless of how you feel about the issue,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican.

That proposal has little support in the Senate.

“I don’t think there’s a groundswell up here to take this issue and federalize it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

Added Sen. Gordon Smith, Oregon Republican: “I’m not for things that go after judges. They’re an independent branch of government. We need to respect that.”

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