Why does Terri Schiavo matter? Why has Congress made a federal case out of her situation? Why did the president of the United States return to Washington from Texas in order to sign a bill created for the express purpose of inviting a federal court to review the case and likely requiring her feeding tube restored while the judge gathers information?

She matters, not only because she has an endowed, inalienable right to life, but also because she is a symbol--like Rosa Parks was a symbol when she refused to sit in the back of that Montgomery, Ala., bus; like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who symbolized freedom by defying Soviet authorities and chronicling the inhabitants and victims of the gulags; like astronauts who brave death to explore space. Symbols have meaning. Terri Schiavo is a symbol in the battle over life-and-death issues that inconveniently, but necessarily, confront us.

Opponents of federal intervention cry "hypocrisy" because conservatives pushing for a federal court review claim to support states rights on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage and think these matters should be left to the states under the 10th Amendment.

But the hypocrisy label can be turned around. Didn't liberals reject states rights when it came to civil rights for African-Americans four decades ago, and didn't they make federal cases out of such things as integrated restrooms and universities? They supported sending federal troops to force integration on unwilling states. They were right to do so then, and conservatives are right to ask the federal government to intervene when a Florida judge has, in effect, ordered the murder of Terri Schiavo by denying her food and water.

Then, as now, when an individual's civil and constitutional rights are denied by a state, there are instances when federal action is required. This is such an instance.

Terri Schiavo's life matters as symbol and substance. Her case is only the latest in a long series that forces us to choose between two philosophies of life.

One philosophy says we are mere material and energy shaped by pure chance in a random universe, evolving from slime with no Author of life, no purpose for living beyond what gives us pleasure and no destination after we die but the grave.

The other philosophy of life says we are created by an infinite, personal God who has a plan for every life in every situation and circumstance and that no one should take a life except under the most extreme circumstances and only through due process or in self-defense.

The Schiavo case should not be viewed in isolation. It is part of a flow that began in modern times with abortion-on-demand and will continue, if not stopped, with euthanasia. Once a single category of life is devalued, all other categories quickly become vulnerable.

Girls who became pregnant by a drunken father and sought abortions were the symbolic beginning of a process that has resulted in abortion for any reason at any stage. Now we are targeting the infirm, and soon the elderly will be in our sights because of the pressure on Social Security and Medicare. The "reasoning" will be: rather than raise taxes, reduce benefits or raise the retirement age, let's eliminate those who are the biggest "drain" on retirement resources--that is, the elderly and infirm.

Having been conditioned to accept killing, even killing by the state according to an arbitrary standard of who is "fit" to live and who is not, it will be a short step to killing Grandma and Grandpa in their "assisted living" centers, which quickly will be transformed into centers for assisted dying.

Someone will produce a document or hearsay testimony that the elderly person would have "wanted to die" in such circumstances and never intended to be a "burden" to their children. The lawyer will be called, the will read and the inheritance distributed. It will be larger than what would have remained had it been spent on the recently departed.

These are the stakes, and how the Schiavo case is decided will determine what many of us will face in the future.

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