“Why wasn’t letting Schiavo die a Christian option, too?”

Ken AshfordAssisited Suicide/Schiavo, Godstuff, Health CareLeave a Comment

It’s a damn fine question, asked by (among many others) the Rev. Frederick Schmidt, an Episcopal priest and theologian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, according to this wonderful article in the St. Petersburg Times:

"I think the religious right is captive to a medical, scientific description of life that equates merely to survival," said Schmidt, director of spiritual life and formation at SMU’s Perkins Graduate School of Theology.

"But Christians can say no, life is broader than that . . . and to let someone go under these circumstances is perfectly appropriate."

He and other scholars say the religious, moral argument in the Schiavo case was largely one-sided. Though polls show a strong majority of mainline Protestants disapproved of Congress’ actions, they and their religious leaders allowed conservative Christians to carry the debate, as they’ve done with embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage.

It’s more than academic. Just as conservatives realized 20 years ago they could not afford to sequester themselves from public affairs, moderates risk becoming culturally and politically irrelevant if they withdraw.

Evangelical Christians "have become the moral edge in the country, because there’s no one else articulating a moral religious view," said Dr. Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University.

"Something has happened to the moderate, mainstream Protestant church. They should be arguing this is a moral issue, and there is another side."

The dispute over Schiavo has been cast in terms of the religious versus the secular. But that’s an artificial line, "because most Americans want some sort of moral religious perspective in their lives," he said.

The moral judgments that help us decide when life begins help us decide when life ends. The Catholic church teaches that life begins at conception; it used to teach that life began at quickening, some 40 days into pregnancy. Are we dead when our brain no longer functions? Or only when our heart stops?

"Science can never adjudicate the boundary between life and death," said Dr. Barbara Koenig, a medical anthropologist and former head of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University. "That is fundamentally a social assessment."

It doesn’t help that many of the terms – brain death, coma, persistent vegetative state – are largely subjective. "People think these are real states that exist in nature, and we can somehow magically measure them using machines," Koenig said. "No, no, no. It’s extremely difficult."

So let’s celebrate the end of Terri’s tortured life this Easter, as we should celebrate the end of ALL torture.