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The politics of a life in the balance

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"The second part of the calculation is the degree of salience of the issue. It might be that among these large majorities that oppose what Congress is doing, many don't really care much about the issue."

Congress's sensitivity to charges of politicization came through in the Senate debate on Saturday, when majority leader Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee condemned a memo that had circulated among Republican members calling the Schiavo situation "a great political issue."

For Republicans representing conservative districts, the biggest concern may be a challenge during the primaries from the right wing of the party, and so a vote to intervene on Schiavo would be seen as preemptive. For the few Democrats who voted to intervene, their choice could be a protection during the general election.

What is clear is that the issue has dominated public attention, from the power corridors of Washington to dinner tables around the country. Polls show that many Americans have discussed their own desires with regard to life-sustaining measures - and in light of the Schiavo case, in which there was no living will, some are seeking legal guidance on drafting their own.

In Monitor interviews in Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., and New York City, those interviewed reflected the range of views evident in polling.

"It's a very difficult issue, but I'm willing to take the word of the medical community that she has no brain function other than instinctual," says Jonathan Laing, a senior editor at Barron's, in Chicago. "Though I count myself as a conservative, I think that the Republicans are pandering to the religious right on this."

Peter Bergeron, a general contractor working on his PhD in philosophy, also questions Congress's decision to intervene. He says he and his wife had already discussed the issues involved because of the movie "Million Dollar Baby."

"It raises questions like, 'What makes life worth living,'" says Mr. Bergeron, sitting in a Chicago Starbucks working on his dissertation. "In this situation, you have a woman who, as far as we can tell, isn't capable of entering into a relationship. What is the purpose of her life? It also raises questions about the role of technology. Were our lives intended to be lived in this kind of vegetative state? Fifty to 60 years ago, we weren't able to prolong life with technology. Just because we can, should we?"

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