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Thoughts on the Terri Schiavo Case

With a federal appeals court refusing early Wednesday to order the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, now may be an opportune time to share my thoughts on this case.

 

Various polls indicate that a majority of people favor the removal of Terri’s feeding tube, leading to certain death. I can understand why. It is hard for anyone who has seen Terri in the persistent vegetative state to do so without being overwhelmed by a sense of sorrow and compassion. Left to our own devices, most of us would surely desire that she be spared the misery of such a life, and this would drive our position on the issue. Just like we intrinsically feel that murder is abhorrent (although many of us define murder along different lines), so too we intrinsically feel that Terri should not be kept alive. I am no psychologist, but I assume that this “intrinsic morality mechanism” depends on environmental factors/societal norms, as well as our own emotional makeup.

 

In contrast, religions such as Judaism and Christianity, are based on the notion of objective morality handed down by G-d. In most cases, subjective morality and objective morality will intersect (such as cases of outright murder). But there are many cases in which the two will produce opposite results, the Schiavo case being a prime example of this. Therefore, I would also be unsurprised if the vast majority of people opposing the removal of Terri’s feeding tube, are “religiously observant.”

 

Why would Judaism be opposed to removing Terri’s feeding tube? I defer to Dr. Daniel Eisenberg:

She is not brain dead nor is she terminally ill. She is brain damaged and remains in what appears to be a persistent vegetative state. All of her bodily functions are essentially normal, but she lacks the ability to “meaningfully” interact with the outside world (although her parents claim that she does minimally respond to their presence and to outside stimuli).

 

To remove the feeding tube from a patient whose only impairment is cognitive is simply murder.

 

Her impairment is cognitive and Judaism does not recognize any less of a right to treatment for one cognitively impaired than one mentally astute.

 

It is a denial of the Jewish ideal of the fundamental value of life that drives the forces that wish to remove Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. While Judaism does recognize quality of life in certain circumstances (such as the incurable terminally ill patient in intractable pain mentioned above), the Torah does not sanction euthanasia in any situation. To remove the feeding tube from a patient whose only impairment is cognitive is simply murder.

Dr Eisenberg also addresses the point that this may go against our own instincts:

We must ask ourselves when we view images of cognitively impaired patients such as Terri Schiavo whether the pain that we feel is Terri’s or whether it is our own. While we may suffer watching movies of the severely brain damaged, it is our own thoughts of the horror of a life without cognition that drives us to project that pain onto the victim who may not be suffering at all.

If I am to be honest about this, I would have to agree that my perceptions of Terri’s “suffering” are really a projection of my own thoughts on the horror of a cognition-free life. Who knows, for sure, whether or not Terri is suffering?

 

At the end of the day, I acknowledge that one’s views on this subject will, in large part, be dictated by whether or not you believe in an objective morality. In any event, I hope that Terri finds peace soon, if she hasn’t already.

 

Update: Dr Eisenberg addresses the issue of whether the existence of a living will from Terri, clearly spelling out her desires in case of incapacitation, would change how Jewish law (Halacha) approaches her case.

About the author

Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
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