WASHINGTON - In the wake of the Terri Schiavo autopsy, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has come under renewed fire for his past questioning of her doctors' dire assessment of her medical condition, based on his own review of a videotape.
Frist, a surgeon, denied yesterday that he had contradicted doctors who said the disabled Florida woman was in a "persistent vegetative state" before her feeding tube was withdrawn in March. She died in April.
"I never made the diagnosis, " Frist said. "I wouldn't even attempt to make a diagnosis based on a videotape." But Democratic political operatives, anticipating that Frist might try to run for president in 2008, circulated transcripts of his statements in March that clearly questioned her doctors' diagnosis based on his review of video footage of Schiavo.
"That footage, to me, depicted something very different than persistent vegetative state," Frist said at the time.
Frist made the comments as he and other GOP leaders pushed Congress in March to approve a bill that aimed, in vain, to prolong Schiavo's life by allowing the case to be reviewed by federal court.
Frist's statements during debate on that bill had drawn criticism then from medical professionals, and he had previously insisted his remarks did not represent a diagnosis. But he came under fresh scrutiny after the release of Schiavo's autopsy Wednesday showed she suffered from irreversible brain damage.
The additional finding that she was blind refuted Frist's judgment after his review of the videotape that "she certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli." But in an interview on the Today show yesterday, Frist insisted, "I never said she responded."
The Schiavo matter could prove troublesome to Frist in a future presidential campaign if opponents use it to raise questions about his credibility.
"It is never good when you say you didn't do something when you are on camera doing it," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican political strategist. Frist's adversaries, Fabrizio predicted, "will use it time and time again."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.