A peculiar thing happened on the way to Children’s Hospital Oakland as Jahi McMath lay in a coma and her family openly sparred with doctors over keeping her alive: You didn’t see any conservative or Republican politicians on it.
The family’s tragedy is, ultimately, what’s most important here: They reached a delicate agreement with the hospital on Friday, in court, that allows 13-year-old Jahi—pronounced legally brain-dead after complications related to a tonsillectomy—to be moved to another facility while connected to a ventilator. It leaves any responsibility, if the girl’s heart stops beating while being transferred, with her mother.
But tragedies, like it or not, inform our democracy, dropping cues on what we debate and how we eventually regulate. And in the case of Jahi McMath, we find a cautionary tale worth addressing.
First thoughts point to the surgical breakdown. How else to describe it when a seemingly simple tonsil-removing procedure ends up going horribly wrong? Now, though, we’re consumed with a euthanasia conversation—and we do so, strangely, against the backdrop of a massive health care system overhaul.
That the hospital stands ready to cut all cords, one can’t help but wonder how fast (or not) they’d do the same if, say, someone with longer money and heavier political clout were in Jahi’s position. Or maybe just someone who appeals to a different constituency.
Just like many conservatives pushed the very limits of our deliberately agnostic policymaking process to craft a better outcome for 41-year-old Terri Schiavo in 2005, when Republican lawmakers—relentlessly pressured by their conservative base—literally shook the foundations of church-state separation to pass a bill protecting Schiavo, a bill that President George W. Bush rushed to sign.
The push to save Schiavo became one of the loudest and most defining political issues of the day. Republicans—desperate to prove conservative street cred to their evangelical base—even risked (and eventually lost) their congressional majority at the time, in part by defying the overwhelming number of Americans, 85 percent, who opposed any government involvement in her case.
That didn’t matter. What was important to the GOP at the time, based on a Karl Rove-ian calculus, was to connect with and energize conservative and evangelical voters, since only 54 percent of the former and 46 percent of the latter supported removing Schiavo’s feeding tube.
For some reason, Jahi’s condition doesn’t seem to resonate the same way. The silence from the right is rather deafening, with almost no political movement—other than the Schiavo family’s personal outreach—for Jahi. It’s easier, apparently, to move legislative mountains for a White woman in conservative Florida precincts than it is for a Black girl from ardently liberal, urban Oakland, Calif.
Even Schiavo’s doctors, reportedly, debated for several years about whether or not to keep her on life support, while Jahi’s family can barely get a month of the same from the physicians caring for their daughter.
A lot has, of course, changed since 2005. Not so, however, in terms of the suspicious and often awkward racial selectivity of conservatives, and the causes they champion. White conservatives and gun-rights advocates were quick to jump to the defense of Trayvon Martin killer George Zimmerman. But when Marissa Alexander, a Black mother in Florida, tried to avail herself of “Stand your ground” laws after firing warning shots against her abusive husband, she landed a 20-year prison sentence—and Zimmerman fans were nowhere to be found.
From the Black mom who went to jail—even when she didn’t kill anyone—to the White guy with gun problems who seems like he’s made of Teflon, that double standard lives on. Sometimes, you see it peeking over our shoulder, lurking in the contrast between the White president, who went all-in to save the comatose White woman, and the current Black president, who’s stayed mum, so far, about the Black girl going through a similar situation. Not that it means politicians have to do something about it—ultimately we can only leave these matters to higher callings and modern science.
But, it does show where their hearts are—and where they aren’t.
(Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.)