Former Sen. Fred Thompson broke through his political role playing this week to show an unscripted human. Talking about the difficult and personal life decisions his family faced when his daughter, Betsy, died at 38 in 2002, he recovered from what pundits perceived as a blunder when he chose not to discuss the Terri Schiavo issue in Florida two weeks ago.
This week, again in Florida, he said he understands that some people want to make the Schiavo case into a "political issue, bandied about in the public market place," but that having faced those decisions himself, proclaimed he is "uncomfortable" with the politicizing of such "an intensely personal" issue.
"No matter which decision you make, you'll never know if you made the right one."
"It should be decided by the family. The federal government and the state government too, except for the court system, ought to stay out of these matters as far as I'm concerned," Thompson said.
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Having worked on the Death with Dignity issue during the peak of the Schiavo battle, watching as social conservatives ran out in front of an issue only to find America was not following, I know Sen. Thompson is 100 percent right. In matters at the end of life, it is the person who is dying, or if incapacitated, their family, who should make those personal decisions in consultation with medical experts.
But being right about personal life decisions families face at the end of life makes Sen. Thompson only half right overall.
At the beginning of life, women often face the same intensely personal decisions, about whether they are ready to take on the responsibility of bringing another life into the world. Faced with an unintended pregnancy, for whatever reason, the decisions are just as challenging as those faced at the end of life.
The harsh and often violent nature of those who think women make a decision to have an abortion lightly is what drove the publicity machine around the Schiavo case.
Americans saw the tragedy of a family pitted against one another played out on national news as Ms. Schiavo lay in an irreversible persistent vegetative state, and were repulsed by the politics.
Public reaction was swift and surprisingly lopsided because people know about death, they grow up seeing it in their families, they know friends who've been in accidents, kept alive by machines, or suffering with terminal illness. People witness death and develop a sense of what they would want as a right should they be faced with many types of deaths.
But the shame and stigma that abortion-prohibitionists promote, makes the decision not to carry an unintended pregnancy one fewer families discuss openly, even though many families have also faced those difficult personal decisions.
The decisions at the beginning and the end of life are all intensely personal, and are best made by the families and the physicians directly involved. The government's role should be to create neutral space so that well regulated options are available, befitting the diversity of people and beliefs in a pluralistic democracy.
Life brings us face to face with difficult decisions, but perhaps none more than when families have to decide when its the right time to bring new life, or say goodbye to a loved one.
One can hope that understanding this at the end of life, Sen. Thompson can come to understand that though he might choose differently than others on decisions at the beginning of life, that those intensely personal decisions are best left to the family.
There are ways to depoliticize these intensely personal issues. Perhaps that's a conversation Sen. Thompson should engage during the primaries.