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Faiths vary on life-or-death care choices

The Schiavo case brings questions of theology and human responsibility to the forefront.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 2005

Tzvi Hersh Weinrab and Richard Address are both New York City rabbis who firmly believe Judaism forbids the hastening of death. But the case of Terri Schiavo has nevertheless revealed in them two sets of moral outlooks, methods, and conclusions that are in practice worlds apart.

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The sole consideration should be whether or not she's alive, according to Dr. Weinrab, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. Because Mrs. Schiavo has breathed on her own and demonstrated some measure of brain-stem activity, he says, removing her feeding tube amounts to "murder by starvation."

Rabbi Address, however, sees a moral dilemma complicated by a dismal prognosis, a poor quality of life and, most important, a real possibility that she never wanted to live in a persistent vegetative state. "Husband, mom, and dad - this isn't about you," says Address, director of the Department of Jewish Family Concerns for the Union of Reform Judaism. "It's about this woman, and what is in the best interest of this woman.... If [feeding tube removal] is what she would have wanted, then this is what you should do."

As Terri Schiavo enters what seem to be her final hours, issues raised by her extraordinary case are highlighting sharp differences in the way religious denominations approach the toughest of moral questions. Across and even within religious traditions, camps are lining up according to their theological views of human nature, religious institutions, and individual responsibility for one's own destiny.

On one side, leading thinkers in the United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist Association stand with other religious progressives in urging everyone to draft a living will. Where skepticism toward religious authorities is robust in these circles, ultimate decisionmaking responsibility has come to rest with the conscience-driven individual and his or her surrogates in times of duress.

On the other side are faiths that question whether human beings should have latitude for choosing the circumstances in which they or their loved ones die. This view is underpinned theologically by a view of human beings as deeply corrupted, down to the last individual. Notions of entrusting people with decisions about when to die appear naive at best, potentially catastrophic at worst.

"If she is allowed to die of dehydration and malnutrition, every American who is sick, elderly, infirm, ill, mentally or physically handicapped is significantly less safe in this culture than they were before Terri Schiavo was allowed to die," Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Conference's ethics commission, said as Schiavo appeared to hover on the brink of death. "Once you move from a sanctity-of-life ethic, [that] there are some things that should never be done to a human being, to a quality-of-life ethic, where human beings are making decisions for other human beings about what is a sufficient quality of life that deserves the sustaining of life, you are on a very steep and slippery slope to a very dangerous place."

Faithful voices on both sides of the debate are quick to point out their reverence for all human life as a divine gift. Theological differences are instead playing out in varied interpretations of medical technology, its ultimate purpose, and what certain of its readings have to say in spiritual terms in cases where the physical body has undergone radical changes.