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August 22, 2014 / 26 Av, 5774
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Where There’s Life, There Is Hope

You would have to be hiding under a rock to be unaware of the sad and drawn-out death of a severely brain damaged woman called Terri Schiavo, whose husband and legal guardian made the decision to have her life-sustaining feeding tube removed. Mrs. Schiavo’s parents, however, wanted their 41-year-old daughter to receive the nutrients needed to sustain her life – such as it was. After years of fighting in court, the husband’s request was enforced.

The case received worldwide coverage and there were thousands of people who supported the husband’s decision or his right to make it, while thousands were vehemently against what they considered murder. Each side equally and eloquently cited numerous legal, ethical, moral and religious reasons for why they were for, or against, the removal of her feeding tube, which everyone knew was a death sentence.

From my knowledge of world history, both past and recent, I know that no one enters a battle thinking they are in the wrong, that they are the “bad guys” . Everyone feels justified in doing what they do, and I am not here to judge either side. I can only express my puzzlement as to why what happened was allowed to happen.

I don’t remember when or where I heard the phrase that I am going to quote – perhaps one of you readers would know – but it goes like this: “Wheres there’s life, there’s hope.”

Years ago, premature babies who weighed less than three pounds were often written off by doctors as not being viable. Often, these tiny infants who did survive were extremely brain damaged and physically and mentally incapacitated. Likewise, people with severe spinal cord injuries or advanced cancers were also viewed as non-saveable. Yet thanks to advanced scientific research and cutting edge bio-medical technology, many babies weighing as little as 20 ounces are being saved with few if any handicaps, and those totally paralyzed and on respirators can, after many years, begin to breathe on their own and even feel sensation and movement in their limbs. And there are many cancer patients who had funeral arrangements made for them years ago who are still enjoying life to the fullest. As long as there is life – there is a possibility of a cure. Most doctors in critical care units, when asked, will tell you that they have seen unexplained recoveries. Even those with no religious beliefs admit that they have witnessed miracles.

There is so much medical research going on globally, especially in Israel – using adult stem cell research – that it is very possible that sooner, rather than later, doctors will be able to regenerate damaged brains, spinal cords and diseased organs, such as the liver and the heart. For that reason alone, I am puzzled that invalids like Terri Schiavo, who did not seem to be in any great pain or discomfort, had their lives cut short.

There are circumstances where death is imminent and invasive medical intervention only prolongs dying, not life, with great physical anguish. There are situations where Jewish law allows non-intervention – for example, in the case of an aged person who is suffering immensely from disease, and painkillers are not giving relief, and whose organs have stopped functioning. If his heart stops beating , one is not required to try to shock it back. It is the body shutting down as it dies. However, withholding food and water to cause death is another matter. I don’t consider being fed a medical intervention like electric shock or a respirator for lungs that no longer can take in oxygen. Just as there are non-traditional but effective ways to communicate besides speaking, like the sign language used by the deaf, I believe a feeding tube is just another way of getting food into the body. It is a high tech “spoon”. A baby’s bottle can be viewed as a “feeding tube”.

I therefore am puzzled as to why Terri Schiavo and others like her – invalids who are not in any torturous pain – have been allowed to be starved to death. I have heard of child abuse cases where a child died because it was beaten by a parent or left alone in a crib for several days with no water or food. Either way, the act was viewed as a heinous murder. Why should it be different for an adult, especially one who despite her adult body has the dependence of an infant?

Many people insist that they would not want to continue living if they were in a vegetative state. What is the point to their lives? King David asked G-d that same question regarding the spider. To him it was a useless creature and he wondered why Hashem had created it. Later, a cob-web spun by a spider at the entrance of the cave in which he was hiding from Saul, who was trying to have him killed, saved David’s life and he understood that every life, every creation has its purpose. Perhaps extremely dependent, seemingly non-functioning people like Terri Schiavo exist so that those who come in contact with them learn kindness and compassion – and discover and appreciate their own blessings. Multi-handicapped people very clearly teach us not to get depressed or feel sorry for ourselves because of minor or even major mishaps or disappointments.

Where there is life, there is hope – and as unlikely as it may appear – there is also good reason.

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