Faiths vary on life-or-death care choices
The Schiavo case brings questions of theology and human responsibility to the forefront.
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In the view of Unitarian minister and death-with-dignity activist Ralph Mero, for instance, Schiavo's feeding tube has become a form of "futile medical treatment" that can be justifiably discontinued. The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, sees the tube as a vehicle of "basic care" and nutritional sustenance to which any ill person is entitled, according to Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In March 2004, Pope John Paul II clarified this understanding and its relevance to patients everywhere in a persistent vegetative state. While the Vatican has nuanced its position over the past 30 years, allowing for "extraordinary medical treatment" to be discontinued when such measures become overly burdensome to a patient, what's regarded as basic sustenance remains a necessity in all cases,regardless of prognosis or quality of life.Skip to next paragraph
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Across a range of traditions, such distinctions resonate more or less according to divergent opinions of whether human beings are capable of knowing what's best for themselves and their kin. "Traditional Judaism does not know of the concept of quality of life," Weinrab says. "If you're alive, you're alive. Even if you're unconscious and in a coma and your life seems to be meaningless, that's only in the eyes of men. But in God's eyes, as long as a person is living, breathing on his own [or showing an active brain], he's alive. And to take that away is something no human being has a right to do."
Islam affirms the same basic idea, albeit with exceptions reserved for select cases of brain damage to the point where there is "no improvement possible," according to Muzammil Siddiqi, president of the Islamic Law Council of North America. Still, he says Mrs. Schiavo should have continued on the feeding tube: "Because she is a living person, we should maintain the life [which is given from God].... If there is any doubt about life and death, we as Muslims believe it is better to err on the side of life."
For those with another theological understanding of human life, however, the opposite conclusion seems justified. Hindus who believe in reincarnation, for instance, can legitimately ask whether justice is served by spending hundreds or thousands of dollars per day to sustain Mrs. Schiavo indefinitely, according to Hindu American Foundation President Mihir Meghani. "Why not let her go into a form, a body, which she will be able to use much more efficiently to reach spiritual levels we are all trying to reach?," says Dr. Meghani, an emergency physician in Fremont, Calif. "In other words, her body has outlived its ability to function for the purpose for which she was born into it, so let her shed the old 'clothes' and put on new 'clothes' that will let her move much more freely."
In the end, the Schiavo case has provided a new stage for an old debate about whether human beings in times of trial need divine guidance to be mediated through religious texts, doctrines, or authorities. The answers seem certain to vary for years - or centuries - to come.