A peculiar thing happened on the way to Children’s Hospital Oakland as Jahi McMath lay in a coma and her family openly sparred with doctors over keeping her alive: You didn’t see any conservative or Republican politicians on it.
The family’s tragedy is, ultimately, what’s most important here: They reached a delicate agreement with the hospital on Friday, in court, that allows 13-year-old Jahi—pronounced legally brain-dead after complications related to a tonsillectomy—to be moved to another facility while connected to a ventilator. It leaves any responsibility, if the girl’s heart stops beating while being transferred, with her mother.
But tragedies, like it or not, inform our democracy, dropping cues on what we debate and how we eventually regulate. And in the case of Jahi McMath, we find a cautionary tale worth addressing.
First thoughts point to the surgical breakdown. How else to describe it when a seemingly simple tonsil-removing procedure ends up going horribly wrong? Now, though, we’re consumed with a euthanasia conversation—and we do so, strangely, against the backdrop of a massive health care system overhaul.
That the hospital stands ready to cut all cords, one can’t help but wonder how fast (or not) they’d do the same if, say, someone with longer money and heavier political clout were in Jahi’s position. Or maybe just someone who appeals to a different constituency.
Just like many conservatives pushed the very limits of our deliberately agnostic policymaking process to craft a better outcome for 41-year-old Terri Schiavo in 2005, when Republican lawmakers—relentlessly pressured by their conservative base—literally shook the foundations of church-state separation to pass a bill protecting Schiavo, a bill that President George W. Bush rushed to sign.
The push to save Schiavo became one of the loudest and most defining political issues of the day. Republicans—desperate to prove conservative street cred to their evangelical base—even risked (and eventually lost) their congressional majority at the time, in part by defying the overwhelming number of Americans, 85 percent, who opposed any government involvement in her case.
That didn’t matter. What was important to the GOP at the time, based on a Karl Rove-ian calculus, was to connect with and energize conservative and evangelical voters, since only 54 percent of the former and 46 percent of the latter supported removing Schiavo’s feeding tube.
For some reason, Jahi’s condition doesn’t seem to resonate the same way. The silence from the right is rather deafening, with almost no political movement—other than the Schiavo family’s personal outreach—for Jahi. It’s easier, apparently, to move legislative mountains for a white woman in conservative Florida precincts than it is for a black girl from ardently liberal, urban Oakland, Calif.