No Fancy Name
Monday, March 28, 2005
the whole end-of-life deal
I wasn't going to say anything about the Terri Schiavo case, but I did hear an informative piece on NPR's Morning Edition the other day. Basically, it was a brief thing about various religions' views on the end of life. You can listen to it here, if you want. I have no religion, but I'm always interested in knowing—just for the sake of accumulating knowledge—religious perspectives on things. The NPR interview included statements by a Catholic priest, an Evangelical Protestant pastor, an imam, a rabbi (Reform), a Buddhist monk and a Methodist minister.

The Catholic was all about "she's alive, that's it, no debate, blah blah." Whatever. I'm glad I never finished going through the rituals of Catholicism.

The pastor said that removing the tube was [a lot of religious stuff plus] "essentially euthanizing someone without their consent" and "what it sets in motion is a principle in jurisprudence and in the American psyche, basically, that it's ok to do that kind of thing." Hmmm. For me, the only issue in this case is a legal one: who has the right to make this decision on behalf of Terri Schiavo? The courts already said who: her husband. The parents have fought for the right, and the courts didn't grant it, because there was no legal reason to take the power away from the husband. End of story. So, while technically Terri hasn't given consent, the person legally responsible for her has. Some people disagree, and that's really just too bad. There are hundreds of decisions like this being made every day. The only reason it's news is because one party has made it news. Can you imagine what it would be like if, across the board, "power of attorney" no longer existed? A nightmare. I don't understand what new "principle in jurisprudence" is being set? People with POA make decisions all the time regarding people without living wills. This isn't new. It's not ideal, because "POA" is not "POA for medical decisions," but in lieu of the latter, why would the former be any less legal?

Anyway, back to the religious side of things, because the remaining folks had interesting things to say about how scholars in their respective religions are split on end-of-life issues. The imam said that Islamic scholars differ on the definition of alive: if you have bodily functions then you are alive [must receive food, hydration and palliative care], or if you have lost brain activity and no longer have consciousness, then you're not alive [don't stay on a feeding tube]. This of course leads to the problem of determining consciousness. I tend to think that "persistent vegetative state," which includes being unresponsive to external stimuli, is a lack of consciousness. If any response to external stimuli were present, then Terri Schiavo wouldn't have been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. Periods of wakefulness are not enough to say "oh look! not a vegetable!"

The rabbi told a story that I would totally dig if I were a religious person. It's the story of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who was gravely ill and was being prayed over by his disciples. These disciples had been praying around him for days and days, in hopes that his life would be extended. The rabbi's maid would have none of this, so she climbed to the roof and dropped a jar, which shattered. The noise interrupted the prayers and at that moment the rabbi's soul was free to depart. The maid's actions were considered praiseworthy because she removed the impediment to death. If the feeding tube is not curing the patient, it is an impediment to death. Removing it is thus a good thing.

The moral of this story is not religious, it's legal: have a living will. Mine would say something like "don't keep me alive with a tube, and if someone puts it in, take the sucker out."


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