The XX Factor

Why Is Jeb Bush Touting His Role in the Terri Schiavo Debacle?

Michael Schiavo still blames Jeb Bush (pictured here in 2014 in Woodbury, New York) for the “living hell” he suffered in 2005.

Photo by Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Jeb Bush has complained about “the narratives” that paint him as a moderate Republican, insisting (truthfully) that he’s in fact very conservative. In the effort to solidify his right-wing bona fides in a recent interview with Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, Bush highlighted the role he played in one of the biggest Christian-right debacles of the George W. Bush presidency: the Terri Schiavo case. 

Answering Daly’s question about his views on “the issue of life, generally,” Bush affirmed that “the most vulnerable in our society need to be protected.” He first highlighted his efforts to make it harder to get a legal abortion in Florida, including new parental-notification rules and funding for so-called crisis pregnancy centers. “Terri Schiavo is another example of this,” Bush continued, “where our laws in our country, and Florida in particular, made it hard for us to do this”—“this” meaning “protect life.” “I did this all within the confines of the power I had,” he concluded.

That’s one way to put it. Another way to put it is that Bush overstepped his authority as governor of Florida and, in a naked display of pandering to the religious right, waged an ugly war on a private citizen, Michael Schiavo, whose only crime was wanting to put his wife to rest after more than a decade in a persistent vegetative state, after her brain had atrophied to less than half its weight. As Michael Keegan of the People for the American Way reminds readers this month at Huffington Post, Bush pushed through a laughably unconstitutional law trying to usurp Michael Schiavo’s marital rights to remove his wife’s feeding tube. When the Supreme Court upheld the decision to strike down the law, Bush tried to go over their heads to his brother, the president. Even after Terri Schiavo died, Bush continued his baffling attacks on Michael Schiavo, pushing a prosecutor to open an investigation insinuating that the man had somehow tried to let his wife die when she first collapsed into a coma 15 years before. 

“He should be ashamed,” Michael Schiavo told Politico in January. “And I think people really need to know what type of person he is. To bring as much pain as he did, to me and my family, that should be an issue.”

Families quietly let the bodies of brain-dead patients die every day without having the governor imply they should be tried for murder. In fact, hospitals sometimes pull the plug against familial wishes simply because of inability to pay, without a single peep from Terri Schiavo’s self-appointed defenders. At the time, a majority of Americans disapproved of the efforts to interfere with Michael Schiavo’s decision to remove his wife’s feeding tube. The grotesque theater around trying to keep this one patient alive served the anti-abortion movement’s larger cause, of trying to brand itself as a global “pro-life” movement.

The Schiavo campaign was also the beginning of an overall shift in anti-choice messaging, away from claims to be protecting innocent babies from their slut mothers and toward protecting women from the selfish men (like heartless Michael Schiavo) who use and discard women. That narrative persists in the anti-choice world, where abortion patients are painted as hapless victims who need to be protected from cads and the greedy abortion doctors who want to profit off them.

Bush could probably shove the whole Schiavo mess down the memory hole, pretend it never happened. Not only were his actions rejected by most Americans at the time, but the press coverage appeared to have inspired an uptick in interest in signing living wills. That Bush has decided instead to highlight his ghoulish behavior in preparation for a presidential run suggests that he, like his brother before him, is aggressively courting the religious right. That might be enough to win him the Republican nomination, but as conservative Christianity is in decline, it’s a risky proposition for getting into the White House.