LosAngeles Times, March 25, 2005
Find No Easy Answers
For religious ethicists, the Schiavo
case is replete with moral issues and emotions
over the nature of human life.
By Teresa Watanabe and Larry B. Stammer, Times
The Terri Schiavo case has sharply divided bioethicists
from secular and religious traditions over
what they say is the key ethical dilemma: Should
artificial nutrition be considered food or
Those who view it as food argue that withholding
it from Schiavo would be as immoral as leaving
a helpless infant to starve. But those who
regard it as medicine say that, given the Florida
woman's condition, it is as ethical to withdraw
the feeding tube as it would be to shut down
The question, fraught with emotions over the
nature of human life and obligations to safeguard
it, has riven people within the same religion.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University
of Judaism in Los Angeles, argued that artificial
nutrition was not food but medical treatment
and was appropriate to withdraw given the hopelessness
of Schiavo's persistent vegetative state. He
also said people had to accept their mortality,
as the Bible made clear.
But Rabbi Avram Reisner, a member along with
Dorff of a Jewish law committee in the Conservative
Movement, said the feeding tube was removed
prematurely. If Schiavo could be trained to
swallow, a capacity he said had not been adequately
explored, then feeding her with a spoon would
be morally obligated. Until that issue was
resolved, he said, artificial nutrition should
have been maintained.
"Feeding is part of the natural process
of life," Reisner said.
Orthodox Jews voiced even stronger views. Withholding
food and drink was "cruel and unusual
punishment," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein,
chairman of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola
Law School in Los Angeles.
Similar divisions are evident among Roman Catholics.
The Vatican and U.S. bishops have said that
giving food and drink, even artificially, was
morally required in the case of Schiavo, who
But ethics professor Daniel C. Maguire at Marquette
University, a Catholic school in Milwaukee,
took issue with that position.
Saying the Vatican and U.S. bishops were out
of step with mainstream Catholic theology against
extraordinary measures to sustain life, Maguire
called the Schiavo case a "15-year atrocity"
that represented a tendency to idealize physical
life and forget the natural process of death.
"We live in a culture where death is the
witch or warlock to be driven out of town
by technical means if possible," Maguire
Conflicting opinions also exist among evangelical
Christians, many of whom have sided with court
appeals by Schiavo's parents to continue feeding
the severely brain-damaged woman.
Focus on the Family, a conservative evangelical
broadcast ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo.,
said it was "appalled and opposed"
to removing Schiavo's feeding tube.
"This is a woman who was not dying until
they removed that feeding tube," said
Carrie Gordon Earll, the ministry's senior
analyst for bioethics. She maintained that
Schiavo was not brain dead or in a persistent
But evangelical Scott Rae, a professor of Christian
ethics at Biola University in La Mirada, argued
that withdrawing the feeding tube would be
appropriate if it could be determined that
it coincided with Schiavo's wishes.
He said he agreed with a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court
decision that feeding tubes "constituted
medical treatment analogous to ventilation,
and removing them was no more starving someone
than removing ventilation was suffocating someone."
He said he would not want to be sustained as
Schiavo had been. "As a Christian, I don't
want anybody to delay my homecoming" in
heaven, he said.
But Rae said he was not convinced that Schiavo
would have willed this outcome, and questioned
whether her husband, Michael Schiavo, was acting
in her best interests. So long as her parents
were willing and able to care for her, what
was the harm in allowing them to do so, he
"If in doubt, you always offer life,"
The Schiavo case has triggered discussion and
soul searching in other religious communities
Southern California physician Hassan Hathout
said Islamic ethics asserted a right to food
and drink and that withdrawing Schiavo's feeding
tube was "tantamount to euthanasia by
hunger and thirst, which is a very cruel kind
Tibetan Buddhists believe that prolonging someone
in a vegetative state could harm the chances
of a good rebirth, and they would support ending
artificial feeding if recovery were hopeless,
said Robert Thurman, a Columbia University
professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies.
"Natural death is very natural and healthy,
which means no lifeline like that," said
Bishop Koshin Ogui of the San Francisco-based
Buddhist Churches of America.
Other traditions, such as Hindu and Bahai, do
not offer clear guidance for such modern ethical
dilemmas, their practitioners said.
Lina Gupta, professor and philosophy department
chair at Glendale Community College, said the
Hindu response would depend on individual circumstances.
Although not specifically addressing the Schiavo
case, she said her tradition offered absolute
moral dictates and flexible ones for
instance, eschewing killing in general but
recognizing warriors who do so to protect others.
Saradeshaprana, a nun of the Vedanta Society
in Los Angeles, said that the Hindu response
would depend largely on the motivation for
taking out the feeding tube and whether it
would prolong or terminate Schiavo's suffering.
Without knowing that, there was no clear answer,
The California Legislature and the courts have
defined artificial feeding tubes as medical
treatment that can be withdrawn by wishes of
the patient or a designated decision maker,
said Vicki Michel, a Loyola Law School adjunct
professor who coordinated a consortium of hospital
ethics committees in Southern California.
"On a gut emotional level, feeding someone
is considered to be basic care," she said.
"But people have to realize that when
you put in a tube to artificially feed, it
is a medical treatment unlike giving a spoon
or baby bottle."
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