It was amazing political high drama when the lights of the Capitol were on past midnight Sunday for the Congress to pass a bill and the President returned to Washington to sign it at 2 a.m., allowing the federal courts to consider the Schiavo case.
It was extraordinary for the Congress of the United States to turn its attention to one individual and to act with dispatch to right what it sees as a wrong in a case replete with hot emotion and an endangered daughter.
Extraordinary, yes; but not unprecedented. I know because I was involved in just such an action in 1989: the Elizabeth Morgan case.
I was working at the time as chief of staff for Chuck Colson at Prison Fellowship Ministries. Our staff working at the District of Columbia jail had met a woman there who stood out in a number of ways. Dr. Elizabeth Morgan was a tall, white, affluent plastic surgeon from northwest DC in a jail full of almost entirely poor black women from east of the river.
She was already a heroine in the jail. She has been there for nearly two years for contempt of court because she refused to allow her six-year-old daughter to go on court-ordered overnight visits to her ex-husband. She accused her husband of sexual abuse of the child, hidden the child, and went to jail rather than tell the court where the child was.
The imprisoned women, the large majority of whom had been abused (you find this in most women’s prisons in the country), loved Morgan for her courage in protecting her daughter from abuse.
Judge Dixon of the District court could not be persuaded that Morgan’s ex-husband, Virginia oral surgeon Eric Foretich, had been abusive. He would not budge, he cited Morgan for contempt, sent her to jail—and left her there.
When Morgan and this case came to our attention, we were amazed by her fortitude and by length of time an unconvicted individual had spent in prison. When we studied the evidence, it, and the witness of Morgan’s action, persuaded us that there had been sexual abuse.
Colson wrote an article calling for Morgan’s release, for which he was condemned and praised. Interestingly, it was our natural allies, the conservative Christians, who were outraged, and our usual adversaries, the liberals and women’s rights activists, who were supportive.
(Both Morgan and Foretich were professed Christians, but he was of the more conservative variety and a member of a prominent northern Virginia evangelical church).
We began lobbying our conservative Christian brethren. I went to visit with James Dobson and presented our large file of evidence. He agreed to have Colson on the Focus on the Family radio program. Our campaign picked up steam.
At the same time, we talked with our local Virginia congressman, Frank Wolf, about the case, as well as a few Senators. I remember one strategic lunch in the Senate Dining Room with a Senator from Tennessee, whose influence was necessary to create and move a piece of legislation to free Dr. Morgan.
Within a couple of months, our efforts were successful. The U.S. Congress passed a bill specifically for the release of Dr. Elizabeth Morgan. She was freed from prison after serving the longest detention for civil contempt in American history–25 months.
In February 1990, the daughter was discovered living in New Zealand with her maternal grandparents. A New Zealand court gave Morgan sole custody, but the visitation requirement by the U.S. court remained in effect, meaning that if Morgan returned to America with her daughter she would have stillto allow her ex-husband to see their daughter. That wasn’t going to happen. Morgan remained in New Zealand with her daughter.
In 2003, a federal appeals court ruled that the law passed by Congress to help the mother was unconstitutional because it applied to one person. By that time, the daughter was 21 and safe from the harm that a mother spent two years in jail to protect her from.In a previous shining moment, repeated last weekend in an effort to save the life of another endangered daughter, Congress saw an individual’s rights as more important than the rights of a state.
In the case of Terry Schiavo, Congressional heroics were not enough to move a stubborn judiciary. Sixteen years ago, with a different set of circumstances but a similar motivation, it worked.