Biopolitics at the Bedside: Proxy Wars and Feeding Tubes


In the aftermath of Terri Schiavo’s dramatic final weeks of life, George Annas speculated that proponents of “culture of life” politics might “now view [themselves] as strong enough to generate new laws . . . to require that incompetent patients be kept alive with artificially delivered fluids and nutrition.” Indeed, Professor Annas’ prescience has been demonstrated by the post-Schiavo introduction in two dozen state legislatures of over fifty different bills making it more onerous to remove a patient’s artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH). With minor exception, however, most of the proposed legislation has either stalled or been watered down, prompting columnist Ellen Goodman to ponder: “What if they gave a culture war and nobody came?” With public opinion polls reporting large majorities in favor of Mrs. Schiavo’s right to cease ANH and in opposition to the government’s intervention in Mrs. Schiavo’s case, the failure of this legislative agenda is not surprising. But Ms. Goodman’s query underestimates the power of what Alta Charo labels “proxy wars” waged by well-funded, opportunistic abortion opponents who seized on the Schiavo case as an opportunity “to rehearse arguments on the value of biologic but nonsentient human existence.” Appropriating Professor Charo’s notion of “proxy wars” and various critical theorists’ concept of biopolitics—that political power which Foucault labeled “the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die”—this paper explores the post-Schiavo political-legal environment and the surge in ANH-related legislation as evidence of what Nancy Neveloff Dubler has termed “a new era of politicized and polarized death.”


Health Law and Policy | Law and Politics | Legislation | Medical Jurisprudence

Date of this Version

September 2006