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 "no tubes." A Florida court has declared Schiavo to be in a PVS, which some in the medical community have labeled the "ultimate curse." Terri's other family members, however, say she is responsive to them and could improve with rehabilitative care that Michael Schiavo refuses to provide.

The science regarding PVS is uncertain, to say the least. Province reports that misdiagnosis may be as high as 40 percent, due to lack of precise measurements of brain waves and physical disabilities in patients. Province notes that "consciousness is a continuum, not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. In general terms, human beings aren't light bulbs with an 'on' and 'off' switch, but instead are more like irons, with 'warm' settings, all the way up to 'hot.'"

Article continues below

Last October, a probate judge granted Michael Schiavo permission to withdraw the feeding tube. Six days later, responding to an avalanche of public indignation (much of it generated by right-to-lifers nationwide), the state legislature quickly passed a law that enabled Gov. Jeb Bush to order doctors to resume feeding her. Schiavo subsequently sued Bush, and a circuit court judge ruled the law unconstitutional. Bush is appealing before the Supreme Court of the state of Florida, and oral arguments are scheduled for August 31.

Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri's parents, say their daughter would choose to live. They bolster their case by citing recent statements of Pope John Paul II. At the end of a conference in Rome last spring on "Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas," the pope affirmed that people have the right to nutrition and health care. Terri Schiavo is a faithful Catholic, they say.

"Terri wants to live," the Schindlers' attorney said last month. "Terri wants to do what the pope has instructed her to do, which is basically what God has instructed her to do."

Michael Schiavo, unfortunately, doesn't see it that way. His attorney said, "It would be pure speculation to guess what Terri might say about the current theological discussion in the Catholic Church about tube feeding."

Whatever happened to Christian compassion for the weak and defenseless? Now it is no more than "pure speculation." In other words, full steam ahead with pulling the feeding tube.

Many proposals for improving care for those with brain injuries emerged from the Rome conference, according to Province: developing specialized coma care units, launching national registries for severe brain injury, and providing standardized diagnosis and assessment.

Facing our ignorance both in theology and science, we ought to tread lightly before wantonly playing God with the lives of the weakest among us—and those with severe brain injuries are surely that. Some people in comas inexplicably recover, while others do not. All, however, bear the divine image. All have inherent dignity. All are messengers pointing us to another world and the God whom we see dimly now, but one day will see face to face.

Stan Guthrie is associate news editor of Christianity Today

Related Elsewhere:

Updates on Schiavo are at the Terri's Fight website.

A September 28, 2003, New York Times Magazine story on PVS, "What if There Is Something Going On in There," was much discussed in pro-life circles.

Article continues below

Earlier Christianity Today commentary on Terry Schiavo includes:

While I Was Sleeping | Why my husband finally refused to end my life during my two-month coma (Jan. 30, 2004)
Christian History Corner: Not a Mercy but a Sin | The modern push for euthanasia is a push against a two-millenniums-old Christian tradition (Jan. 30, 2004)
Why I Believe in Divorce | A disabled Florida woman's only hope to stay on life support is to divorce her husband who wants to pull the plug (Oct. 16, 2003)

Other Christianity Today coverage of the Schiavo case is available in our Life Ethics area. Links to mainstream news coverage of the case appears in our Weblog.