The removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding/ hydration tube on March 18 sparked a national uproar. Indignant protests arose on both sides of the "right to die" issue.

CT associate editor Jeff M. Sellers spoke about Schiavo's case with Gilbert Meilaender, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. Meilaender is the Richard and Phyllis Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.

What are the Christian ethical guidelines for whether to remove the nutritional tube in a case such as Terri Schiavo's?

There have normally been two kinds of grounds on which one could reject a treatment: if it is useless, or if it is very burdensome for the patient.

In Schiavo's case, it is counterintuitive to say that it's useless when it kept her alive for so long, and she did not seem to experience it as a burden.

By calling nutrition a "treatment" instead of basic care, are we opening the door to calling it a "useless treatment"?

Not if we're careful. We only open that door if we say, "The treatment is useful in the sense that it will keep her alive indefinitely, but it's just not much of a life to have. It's a useless life."

Although we understand why some people might say that, it amounts to rejecting not simply a useless treatment but a useless life—and that we should not do. We can understand psychologically how any of us might feel that way, but it's a feeling that ought to be resisted.

Theologically, we don't consider ourselves the authors of life or death, as those who have authority over it. Our obligation is to care for the lives of others and acknowledge their death when the time comes, but our authority is limited to that.

When did a feeding tube go from being considered basic care to a medical treatment?

There's ...

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May 2005

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