Away from the noisy right-to-die debate that marked Terri Schiavo's last days, Congress on Wednesday began a more pragmatic look at the quality of hospice care and the legal needs of the disabled in America.
"Although Terri Schiavo very dramatically brought these issues to the attention of the nation, their importance did not fade or diminish with her loss," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The hearing on hospice care, legal tools for the disabled and whether any legislation might be warranted was an effort to move past Congress's Palm Sunday vote intended to clear the way to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube.
But the bitter fight that split her family also has rippled through Congress in the wake of that vote. Although no Democrats filed an objection to the March 20 bill, many still were seething at Congress' intervention.
"One thing is sure: families facing these painful decisions deserve better than political theatrics from the United States Congress," said Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Health Committee's ranking Democrat. "Republican leaders abused their positions of power to play politics with Terri Schiavo's life."
Schiavo, 41, died last Thursday at a Florida hospice almost two weeks after the removal of the feeding tube that had kept her alive since 1990, when she suffered brain damage that court-appointed doctors determined had placed her in a persistent vegetative state.
As Schiavo faded, congressional leaders called lawmakers back from Easter recess to pass a bill that would allow federal courts to review the decisions of state judges who turned down her parents' efforts to resume her feeding. Federal judges all the way to the Supreme Court held up those decisions; polls showed large majorities of the public disapproved of Congress's involvement.
Enzi's committee originally tried to call Schiavo and her husband Michael before it on March 28. Instead, it gathered Wednesday to hear from experts on end-of-life issues, brain injuries and discrimination against disabled people to determine if legislation might be needed for cases like Schiavo's.
Rud Turnbull of Lawrence, Kan., father of 37-year-old Jay Turnbull and a former legal professor, warned the panel away from any legislation that tries to define which cases warrant life-sustaining care.
"Those debates frighten me, and they should alarm you, too," said Turnbull, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas. "The slippery slope is slick and awaits all of us."
Still, he and other witnesses urged Congress to consider legislation that would, in part, better inform disabled people and their families of their health care choices. Another witness, J. Donald Schumacher of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association, said Congress should pass a bill that would provide incentives for Medicare beneficiaries and their doctors to meet and discuss end-of-life care.
Other legislation being considered, including a bill by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would let federal courts review cases like Schiavo's — when there is no advance directive and there's a dispute over the person's wishes.
Still other proposals include one by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who suggested an impeachment case could be made against judges who rebuffed Congress' will.
"That to me should be of concern to Democrats and Republicans regardless of how you feel about the issue," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
The proposal has little other support in the Senate.
"I don't think there's a groundswell up here to take this issue and federalize it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Added Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.: "I'm not for things that go after judges. They're an independent branch of government. We need to respect that."