Across America, tens of thousands of people share a similar medical diagnosis as Terri Schiavo. And every day, families face agonizing decisions about what's best for their loved one's welfare. Like Terri's family, they might not agree on the best course to take.
All of these families need compassion. They're in the unenviable position of having to make life-and-death choices on behalf of others - "playing God," as the saying goes.
More likely than not, they're also confronting their own fundamental questions about life itself. Like the abortion issue, "right to die" cases - as that of Schiavo's is being cast - challenge people to consider the meaning, purpose, and source of life.
A public debate along these lines intensified in America with the Roe v Wade abortion ruling in 1973. It's escalated further since then as science and medicine explore frontiers like cloning, stem cells, and genetics, while the "right to life" movement redefines itself more broadly as a "culture of life" effort.
It's promising for a society to be grappling with such issues as the definition and quality of life. But so many of these efforts limit their focus to the human body only, probing deeper and deeper into its physical makeup.
The late Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish theologian and rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., emphasized the need to push beyond "a mechanical view" of individuals. As one considers the Schiavo case, now racing through the federal appeals process, it's worth pondering Rabbi Heschel's observation:
"It is a distortion to characterize the life of man as moving toward death.... That every moment is a step toward death is a mechanical view. Every moment of life is a new arrival, a new beginning ...."
That's certainly echoed in the message of Easter, which points to life as essentially spiritual and indestructible. It's a timely message that can comfort those involved in the Schiavo case, as well as others dealing with such trying circumstances.
Society's concepts of life often differ, and they can change to new and better views. That's why judges and lawmakers must be cautious in accepting "prevailing" theories in medical cases at the expense of those views.
In its hasty action on the Schiavo case, Congress declared it should in the future "consider the status and legal rights of incapacitated individuals." That sort of government intervention into the health choices of an individual or a family, however, can come at a great cost to civil liberties, such as the privacy of individuals. Laws or court decisions that tread on those liberties must reflect society's broadest and most current consensus on what constitutes life.
Saving lives, of course, is part of government's duty. But in difficult cases like Schiavo's, when views differ on what is best for an individual, government must step back and listen broadly before acting. Honoring an individual's view of life must come first when society lacks a wide agreement on such personal issues.