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The politics of a life in the balance

Monday's congressional vote to send the Terri Schiavo case to a federal judge taps issues of dignity, legality - and strategy.

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When the US House of Representatives voted 203 to 58 in the wee hours of Monday morning to hand the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman, over to a federal judge, the politics were unmistakable.

For members from socially conservative districts, questions over the propriety of Congress jumping in and passing a law of debatable constitutionality pale in the face of the stark reality: that Ms. Schiavo appeared certain to die without their intervention. It was a vote that went to the heart of supporting the "culture of life" that is central to the religious conservative ethos.

For President Bush, who rushed back to Washington to sign the bill minutes after Congress acted, the choice also appeared easy. Though he, too, has long spoken of the "culture of life," he has also disappointed religious conservatives on many occasions. He has not, for example, forcefully advocated for constitutional amendments banning abortion or gay marriage. On Schiavo, whose feeding tube was removed last Friday per the wishes of her husband, he could take the pro-life side and satisfy the socially conservative base of the Republican Party - activists crucial to the 2006 and 2008 elections - without much personal political downside.

But members of Congress who voted in favor of intervening may face some political cost. An ABC News poll taken Sunday showed strong opposition to the law; 70 percent of those polled said Congress should not have gotten involved. And by a margin of 67 percent to 19 percent, most Americans think Congress acted more for political advantage than out of concern for Schiavo or for the principles involved.

For years, other polls have shown that in a case when a patient is in what physicians call a "persistent vegetative state," the spouse is the top choice for who decides whether to end life-sustaining measures.

Still, for those 208 members of Congress who voted to turn the Schiavo case over to federal court, the risk was probably calculated.

"Part of that calculation is that ... if you're going to irritate a bunch of people, you might as well not irritate the people who are otherwise with you on issues," says John Green, an expert on religious conservatives at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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