It's been five days since the feeding tube was removed from Terri Schiavo. By the time this article is posted, it will either have been reinstated, or she may already be dead.
As an American citizen, I am shocked that a woman--conscious, albeit in a severely brain-damaged state--could be starved to death. As a human being, I am horrified.
I've seen the pictures of her smiling as her mother hugs her, huge eyes open wide as she surveys her surroundings. She supposedly has the responses of a 6-11 month old baby. My daughter is seven months old. She laughs, she cries. She
knows joy, fear, pain, and hunger. She is far from unaware. Perhaps Terri is not even this responsive, although she is conscious and can swallow and breathe on
her own. But her abilities would depend on who you ask: her husband, a man who already has two children with another woman; or her parents and siblings, who have stood by her side since that fateful day when Terri collapsed from a vitamin deficiency fifteen years ago.
Since that day there has been no improvement -- at least none that can be seen or detected. Does that mean that her condition can't change? According to certain doctors that answer is "no, it can't"; others believe that with the correct therapy, the answer could be "yes." However, if she is starved to death
this week, we will never know.
In Judaism there is a law against taking one's own life. Even if the sword is against one's throat, we are taught that we are not allowed to despair. Why? The answer is that if we believe there is a G‑d in this world, then we must believe
that we can be saved, even at the last minute--even at the last second.
Throughout our history, Jews who could have avoided painful, torturous deaths at the hands of their enemies if they had taken their own lives suffered these fates because they believed that their desperate situation could change. Many were right and lived to tell the stories of a miraculous escape, a gun that
jammed, a bullet that missed its mark.
However, Halachah (Torah law) is not cruel. It is not senseless. It is compassionate and understanding and recognizes that there are certain people who are suffering an incredible amount of pain.
A patient on his deathbed, for whom no cure is deemed possible and death is an inevitable, immediate reality, must be allowed to die (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 339:1). In a case such as this, one is not required to continue treatment,
unless the treatment will help ease the pain of the patient. A person in such a state is called a goses.
But Terri Schiavo is not a goses. She wasn't dying when the feeding tube was removed. She's dying now only because she's cruelly being denied food and water. She's being starved to death simply because her husband believes that
hers is a life not "worth" living.
Terri went from a young, vivacious woman, to her current vegetative state, in about five minutes. If five minutes could change her life in this direction, how can we not believe that in five minutes it could be turned the other way? How
can we decide for her that she would no longer want to live?
And yet, a current CNN poll indicates that 56% of those who responded agree that the tube should be removed. The majority of American citizens and the courts seem to agree that there is no reason to have hope and no reason to have
faith. They believe that since nothing has changed until now, nothing will.
This is a terrifying reality for each and every one of us.
Terri is only one example, but the ramifications of this situation are enormous. What the courts are telling us is that someone can decide for you, on your behalf, if your life is worth living. And even if you never clearly stated
such a desire, and certainly didn't put it in writing, your legal guardian's word will be trusted.
Jewish law requires witnesses. Two people can love each other. They can choose to marry. They can have a ceremony and write a contract. But their marriage will only be accepted under Jewish law if there are two witnesses, and
witnesses, by definition, cannot be relatives. The assumption is that anyone with a connection or bond as strong as family cannot be trusted to be a reliable witness. If a witness has something to gain from the outcome, that person cannot
But in Jewish law, the question goes even further than simply whether or not Terri's husband and appointed legal guardian has the right to determine for her, or state on her behalf, if she would want to "live this way." According to Halachah, the question exists as to whether even Terri herself could make such a decision. Could Terri decide to take her own life, to stop her own treatment? Do we possess the ability, or the authority, to decide that our life is not worth living?
If G‑d didn't want us to be alive, we wouldn't be. We don't create life, and we certainly don't have the authority to end it. We didn't choose to be here, and we cannot choose to leave here. Furthermore, the assumption is that a
healthy person shouldn't want to take his or her life. We even consider someone who is suicidal to be mentally ill. If a person wants to die, clearly there is something wrong which must be treated. We often claim that someone who threatens
suicide doesn't really want to die but rather is screaming out for help. And the Torah teaches that we have an inner will and desire to live, even if we do not think that we do.
If Terri Schiavo dies, or rather, if she is deliberately and inhumanely murdered, a piece of each and every one of us will die with her. It is time we take a good look at ourselves and the world we live in. We need to wonder why the majority of Americans support this course of action while only a handful
If the courts determine that a person can choose when he or she no longer wants to continue with his life, then where do we draw the line? If someone verbally states, or even declares in writing, that he or she no longer wants to live under certain circumstances, how can we ever know that this person still
feels this way? For a healthy, able-bodied person, the prospect of living with a severe handicap is too awful to contemplate. Who hasn't said at some point that "I'd rather be dead" if he or she couldn't walk, talk, see, or hear? But when, G‑d forbid, one suddenly can't, as is the case for many after an accident or
illness, opinions change. Suddenly life become much more valuable and not as easily disposable.
Death is not a decision that can be changed after the fact. What kind of power are we giving our government, our guardians and even ourselves?
I guess we must all hope and pray that we are never in such a situation. For perhaps if we were the one lying on the bed, we would have a very different view of the world around us.