Congress to Take Up Rights for Incapacitated

Congress is turning to more traditional means to help protect the rights of the incapacitated after failing to intervene in the Terri Schiavo (search) case by staging emergency midnight votes and summoning the brain-damaged woman to testify.

The Senate Health Committee (search) will hold a hearing on April 6 with neurology and palliative care (search) experts on the issue of health care provided to non-ambulatory people.

This hearing replaces one originally scheduled for Monday in which Terri Schiavo and her husband were asked to appear before the panel in Washington in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent caretakers from removing the woman's feeding tubes.

The House Government Reform Committee also plans to hold hearings at some time on the larger issues raised by the Schiavo case such as the long-term options available to the disabled, said David Marin, spokesman for committee chairman Tom Davis, R-Va.

Davis' panel also made a futile attempt to save Schiavo by issuing subpoenas to her and the hospice caring for her and planning a hearing last Friday in her Florida hospice room. That plan was called off after the courts continued to uphold the decision of Schiavo's husband Michael to abide by what he said were his wife's wishes and not prolong her life. Schiavo has been in what court-appointed doctors describe as a persistent vegetative state for the past 15 years.

Legislatively, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, an advocate for the disabled, is working on a bill to provide for additional federal court review in cases where the wishes of the incapacitated person are not known and there is a dispute among family members.

Harkin's spokeswoman, Allison Dobson, said the senator is talking to legal experts and members of the disability community and wanted to make sure that his bill would respect the advance directives of patients and would apply to a limited number of circumstances.

The House on March 16 passed a far-reaching bill sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., that would sent to federal courts those disputed cases involving the incapacitated.

But that broader approach was opposed by senators concerned that it could undermine an authority that has always rested in state courts and affect state-assisted suicide laws. In the end, House members had to be called back from their spring recess on Sunday, March 20, for a dramatic midnight vote on a far narrower bill that gave Schiavo's parents the right to seek a federal review. The federal courts refused to order the reinsertion of her feeding tubes.

Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities (search), said he was pleased that Harkin, one of the more liberal members of the Senate, might work with conservatives such as Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla., to come up with legislation that would be acceptable across the political spectrum.

He said he was heartened that Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a sharp critic of the Schiavo bill that Congress eventually passed, on Sunday told a television morning news show that Congress needs to look at improving the procedures, "because I've spoken with a lot of disability groups who are concerned that even where a choice is made to terminate life, it might be coerced by circumstance."

Imparato said their hope was that "we can set aside the politics of the culture of life and abortion, and focus in on what are the implications for people with disabilities."