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FIRST-PERSON: Deciding death by starvation over fried chicken

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EDITORS’ NOTE: James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness. This editorial first appeared in the Witness.

JACKSONVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“The Republican Nine first came together over fried chicken and salad.”

The St. Petersburg Times reported March 20 that a handful of Florida state senators became known as the Republican Nine when they resolved together that they would not support legislation offered by Republican Sen. Daniel Webster to help save Terri Schiavo from the cruel death ordered by Florida Judge George Greer.

Don’t miss the irony — nine Republican senators decided while they enjoyed a meal that it was OK for a Florida citizen to be starved to death!

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It’s often been said that one of the key responsibilities of good journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I cannot think of a better illustration of this maxim than our coverage of the Terri Schiavo euthanasia case. Schiavo is being afflicted and deserves comfort and certain comfortable public officials need to be afflicted.

Since September 2003 when I first editorialized on this matter, the Witness has given exhaustive coverage to the plight of the severely brain-damaged woman whose adulterous husband has been determined to hasten her death, even though she is not in a coma, is not brain dead, and is not on a ventilator or any other machine to operate her vital organs. She, like you and me, merely needs to be fed in order to continue to live.

In spite of winning a lucrative medical malpractice lawsuit in which he pledged to the court that he would care for his wife the rest of her life, Michael Schiavo since has sought the starvation death of Terri against the wishes of her parents and siblings who are willing to take responsibility for her care.

I don’t know of a clearer example of someone being afflicted who needs to be comforted than Terri Schiavo. And, I don’t know more fitting examples of those who are comfortable who need to be afflicted than that of the Republican Nine — and others who opposed legislation in Tallahassee and Washington to save Terri — and Judge George Greer.

The Republican Nine senators were led by my senator — Jim King — the former Senate president who regularly stands against pro-life and pro-family concerns. The rest of the Nine included: J.D. Alexander, Nancy Argenziano, Michael S. Bennett, Lisa Carlton, Paula Dockery, Dennis Jones, Evelyn Lynn and Burt Saunders. These nine joined 12 Democrats March 17 in preventing even a fair hearing on the Florida Senate floor of Webster’s bill, which differed from the measure adopted by the Florida House earlier in the day.

“I believe that there is a heaven and that’s where Terri Schiavo is going to go, and that’s a trip that’s long overdue,” said King, according to the Times. The Senate’s apparent newfound theologian continued in his spiritual musings: “Had God not wanted what happened today to happen, He would have intervened” — which conveniently takes King and his colleagues off the hook for their willingness to allow Terri to be starved death, the fate they agreed upon OVER LUNCH! I wish I could say I’m delighted by an interest in theological matters by Sen. King, but suffice it to say that he holds a less than biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.

It is simply outrageous that this barbarism is happening in our state. And it’s incredible that Terri’s cruel death was ordered at the hands of a judge who professes to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

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It’s now a matter of public record — as reported by the St. Petersburg Times, New York Times and Miami Herald — that Judge Greer became estranged from his long-time church family at Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., in the fall of 2003 after the Witness editorialized in defense of Schiavo and criticized his decisions. Greer was offended by my editorials and because Calvary sends the Witness to its membership via our church newsletter service, in response the judge stopped attending church.

(Interestingly, however, Judge Greer told us in the summer of 2004 when we interviewed him during his re-election campaign that he still considered himself an active member of Calvary, while admitting that he did not attend regularly.)

Readers may recall that Calvary Baptist’s pastor, William E. Rice, wrote a column comparing the plight of Terri Schiavo to his severely disabled sister, Sharon.

Recently, Greer made his estrangement with the church final when he sent a letter to Rice indicating he was withdrawing his membership in response to an inquiry from Rice.

“What’s so exasperating is that my faith is based on forgiveness because that’s what God did,” Greer told the Times. “When I see people in my faith being extremely judgmental, it’s very disconcerting.”

For the article on his re-election bid, Greer — after agreeing to be interviewed by the Witness only after learning it was for a news story and not an editorial — slammed my editorials as “un-Christian.”

“There’s a difference between me saying, I think you’re in error and I wish you’d reconsider your position, as opposed to, you’re wrong, you’re dead wrong, you’re stupid. And that’s how those editorials came across,” Greer told the Witness. Readers can go to our website (www.floridabaptistwitness.com) and review the editorials to decide for themselves if I called Judge Greer “stupid” (which I did not). I remain convinced he is as he puts it, “dead wrong,” in the truest sense of those words, especially as it concerns Terri Schiavo.

Any regular reader of the Witness would know that I’m an equal opportunity critic of public officials of all political stripes. Two weeks ago I questioned the sincerity of some Democrats who supposedly have a newfound concern for values issues. In the past, both Gov. Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush have been subjected to negative scrutiny on various matters. I have stood for the sanctity of human life and any politician — or judge — who contributes to the advancement of the Culture of Death in America will continue to be criticized.

Indeed, there are those in a comfortable repose who need to be afflicted — in the proper manner.

Let me be absolutely clear — any person who claims to be a defender of human life, and especially those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, bring disdain on the just cause of saving Terri Schiavo when they threaten the life and physical well-being of Judge Greer, other politicians, or Michael Schiavo, as some news accounts have reported. The isolated few individuals who would act in such an unbiblical fashion or even threaten such action are no better than those they criticize and must be repudiated by any true friend of Terri Schiavo. Vigilante justice is no justice at all.

It’s also important to note that not all politicians have fled for the “tall grass” on this matter. Especially in recent days, public officials in both Tallahassee and Washington, and some from both political parties, have worked valiantly on behalf of Schiavo. In Washington, Sen. Mel Martinez and Rep. David Weldon, both Florida Republicans, led the effort to find a federal avenue of help for Terri. Some Democrats, including most notably Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, joined this effort.

In Tallahassee, Terri’s assistance is being led by two truly active Southern Baptist laymen, state Rep. Dennis Baxley and state Sen. Webster. These members deserve our praise and thanks.

James Q. Wilson, an ethicist and scholar who has taught at Harvard, UCLA and Pepperdine, makes clear the ethical import of this case in a March 21 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

“What is lacking in this matter is not the correct set of jurisdictional rules but a decent set of moral imperatives,” Wilson writes.

“That moral imperative should be that medical care cannot be withheld from a person who is not brain dead and who is not at risk for dying from an untreatable disease in the near future. To do otherwise makes us recall Nazi Germany where retarded people and those with serious disabilities were ‘euthanized’ (that is, killed).”

What is at stake in the Terri Schiavo matter is not only her life — although that is enough to cry out for relief — but more fundamentally whether our nation will stop its lethal drift favoring a Culture of Death for the most helpless, voiceless and severely disabled among us.

These human beings, like Terri, deserve to be comforted and relieved of their affliction, and some public officials’ comfort is worthy of affliction — in the proper, lawful way — both today in the form of citizen action and in the future when they stand before voters at the ballot.
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