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Judeo-Christian religion has always had a special regard for "the least of these." Jesus said our kindness toward prisoners, strangers, and the sick will matter on Judgment Day. In the Old Testament, God commanded his people to care for the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. This ethic of protection for the weak and vulnerable was largely unknown in other cultures. By contrast, Christians have been famous for their care for those the rest of society had rejected or forgotten.

Yet today, as the Christian foundations of Western society continue to rot, our compassion is turning deadly. Witness, for example, our treatment of those said to be in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS, defined in 1972 as a condition of "wakefulness without awareness"). Instead of a bias for life, we seem to be acquiring a bias for death—and calling it compassion. We talk about "death with dignity," but say little about "life with dignity." Writing for the Center for Bioethics and Culture, nurse Cindy Province says "right-to-die" activists have "used the PVS as a galvanizing point to rally people to their cause. State laws have been changed to classify food and water as 'medical treatment.'"

Terri Schiavo is a well-publicized case in point. Schiavo, now 40, collapsed under mysterious circumstances in 1990 and is now severely cognitively disabled. Terri gets food from a feeding tube but otherwise needs no "heroic" measures to stay alive. Her husband, Michael, won a malpractice judgment of $1.3 million that included money for her medical care. Since that time he has moved in with a woman he calls his fiancée, fathered two children with her—and attempted to remove Terri's feeding tube, saying she had mentioned years ago that she wanted ...

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August 2004

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