Moral Clarity

A Terri Schiavo supporter buries her head in a temporary fence and cries outside the Woodside Hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., after hearing that Terri Schiavo had passed away Thursday morning March 31, 2005. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) )
Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

Remember when your mother used to tell you not to discuss politics or religion at the dinner table? For the past two weeks not only were politics and religion the dominant issues on the national dinner plate but politics and religion infused with ugly raw emotion, political grandstanding, the most dire of charges and counter-charges.

Now the life that had become a political football and a media free-for-all is over. But Terry Schiavo's death -- which one hoped would bring peace and resolution -- sparked even more vitriol from spiritual leaders, politicians and the people she loved the most, her family.

The opposing sides kept the rage going all day. Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Vatican's office for sainthood, called the removal of the feeding tube "an attack against God." House Republican leader Tom DeLay blasted an "out-of-control judiciary" and said "the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior." Democrat Ted Kennedy shot back that Delay's comments were "irresponsible and reprehensible" and said that "at a time when emotions are running high, Mr. DeLay needs to make clear that he is not advocating violence against anyone."

But maybe the most heartbreaking moment of the day was the news that minutes before Schiavo's death a fight broke out in her hospital room between her brother, Bobby Schindler and a law enforcement officer over whether he could stay in the room when his sister died.

Virtually everyone in this case has strong unequivocal opinions and has chosen sides. Some Catholic moral theologians were a bit taken aback when the Pope waded into the case a year ago saying that food and water, even artificially provided nutrition and fluids, were normal means and not medical acts and, therefore, morally obligatory.

Rev John Parris, a bio-ethicist from Boston College, contrasted last year's statement with "the Vatican's position, which was formulated out of a 400-year Catholic tradition summarized in 1980 in an official declaration on euthanasia by the Vatican, which stated that one may legitimately remove any treatment that proves overly burdensome, and the removal was not suicide, but the acceptance of the human condition." He suggested that the Pope's statement would ultimately be reconciled with the historical analysis. But both sides, once again, picked their favorite theological argument and ran with it.

But in the midst of all the heat and the back and forth on the theological, legal, political issues, finally some light.

University of Dayton theologian Teresa Lysaught wrote in an opinion piece that the crucial moral issue here is the "dynamic of family brokenness." She conceded that there were valid questions about the "utilitarian attitude toward the dignity of certain lives" but asked "How would the Schiavo case look different if the religious lobby recognized that what is at stake at the moral center of this case is not an unswerving commitment to the sanctity of life but the disastrous brokenness and enmity between members of her family, the people she loved the most." The healing of broken families, Lysaught suggested, is the true moral issue which should be attended to and one which is a lot more difficult and urgent than the "antagonistic assertions of rights." It is a mission for those truly concerned about a Christian commitment to life.

The political fight looks like it will continue beyond Schiavo. But let us hope her legacy will be not just to get people to write living wills but to work to end the conflict and bitterness that exists in so many families over these very difficult issues.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for