Activists hope to keep up momentum

Sun National Staff

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - The Rev. Ed Martin does not want to squander the attention that the Terri Schiavo case has given his cause. In the month the anti-abortion activist spent outside the hospice housing the severely brain-damaged woman, he has given his business card - emblazoned with a logo of an adult hand protectively holding a baby - to every reporter who has approached him.

In the wake of Schiavo's death, protesters like Martin are trying to hold on to the national media contacts they made while demonstrating outside the hospice, hoping to use their outrage over the Florida woman's death as fuel for future activism. For the groups joined together on this case - anti-abortion protesters, disability rights advocates, euthanasia opponents - the aim is to keep the issues alive after her death.

"We have to go into the political realm and get the right elected officials in office who will fight the people in favor of 'death with dignity,'" said Martin, 59, an Ocala, Fla., activist who spends most of his days demonstrating outside abortion clinics.

Chet Gallagher, 55, who was arrested dozens of times during Operation Rescue anti-abortion protests, sees the fight over right-to-die issues as the next logical extension of his activism. "It's the same alliance of all of us who were active in the Rescue movement in the '80s," he said.

In many ways this is an old alliance of religious conservatives who usually band together on cultural and political issues. This group is undaunted by polls showing that a majority of Americans supported Michael Schiavo's decision to have his wife's feeding tube removed. They say the survey questions were tilted against their cause.

With this latest cause comes, they hope, new momentum, broadening their movement to a spectrum of "right to life" issues.

"This situation allowed so many doors to be opened on the culture of life," said Lanier Swann, a lobbyist for the conservative Concerned Women for America. "It is our hope and our understanding that Congress will continue to dig deeper into this."

But there's no clear picture of where such activism goes now that demonstrators are packing up their tents, the media is heading home and many Americans are expressing relief that this sad and troubling look inside a divided family is finally over. And for a group so diverse that demonstrators outside the hospice sometimes fought with each other, rather than their right-to-die opponents, the alliance is hardly ironclad.

Protesters in wheelchairs joined the rally outside Woodside Hospice, arguing along with the anti-abortion crowd for the reinsertion of Schiavo's feeding tube. But several took offense at religious activists over their support of abortion rights and over language some felt was patronizing.

"They were praying for our healing, and I told them I don't need to be healed, thank you very much - it's this whole ideology that we're not OK as we are," said Carol Cleigh, 50, who came here from North Carolina with supplemental oxygen and a mobilized wheelchair.

But most protesters on the Schiavo case agree that "persistent vegetative state" and "minimally conscious state" are terms open to vast interpretation. They want patients without a living will to have government protections in case their relatives are coerced into terminating their lives. Cleigh said she hopes the case brings attention to problems that stem from what she calls the "better dead than disabled" attitude.

After collapsing 15 years ago, Schiavo had been in what doctors called a persistent vegetative state, meaning she was incapable of registering or vocalizing thought. But Schiavo's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, said they saw signs of emotion and cognition and fought their daughter's legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, who said his wife had told him she would never want to live on artificial life support.

Schiavo died yesterday after 13 days without food or water.

Now some conservatives hope to fight end-of-life issues on Capitol Hill, and some lawmakers are expected to promote legislation that would give new legal options to patients like Schiavo. Conservatives also hope to maintain the alliance with disability rights groups and even some Democratic lawmakers.

There's also some talk of enlisting senior citizens in the end-of-life fight.

"You've got these talking heads saying it's OK to euthanize someone as long as it's painless and it's OK if someone's profoundly disabled to throw them over the side," said Ken Connor, chairman of the conservative group Center for a Just Society. "You can imagine the shock waves that is going to send people in long-term care institutions."

In addition, activists are eyeing the courts. Heartened by the intervention of Congress and President Bush in the case but angered by federal courts that rebuffed them, they're eager for judicial change. Free Republic, a conservative Web site, distributed leaflets outside the hospice last week, trying to attract attention for an April 7 rally to support conservative judicial nominees.

"We can get the legislature and the executive branch to move, but the third branch of government has been a place of frustration for us," said Gary Cass, executive director of the Center for Reclaiming America, a branch of a nationally broadcast television and radio ministry. "Our base is going to be more energized and more active than before."

Congress passed a law that dealt narrowly with Schiavo's care, but now some lobbyists want a broader bill that would allow federal courts to intervene when members of a family disagree with decisions by state courts about a patient's care.

Some liberal groups, noting polls that showed most Americans opposed Washington's intervention in the Schiavo matter, say conservative groups that jumped on the right-to-die case could face a backlash in the aftermath of Schiavo's death.

"From our experience, most people want the government to stay out of this kind of situation and let the individual and the family resolve it," said Elliot Mincberg, vice president of the liberal People for the American Way.

But the Schiavo case has mobilized thousands of supporters who have been willing to donate to the Schindler family's cause. The New York Times recently reported that the Schindlers struck a deal with a conservative direct-mail firm, selling their list of 4,000 e-mail addresses from donors to their legal fight through their Web site.

At the central Florida hospice, activists like Chet Gallagher - who was arrested Easter Sunday for trying to take Schiavo communion - say they see the Schiavo case becoming a part of the conservative lobbying agenda. The devout Christian considers the next cultural front the fight over the end of life.

"We have a movement now, and there has to be a unified stand against this imposing spirit of euthanasia," he said. "It's a real spiritual battle that's raging."

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