Laws authorizing a guardian to starve to death a ward are profoundly immoral, even as applied to those who would have wanted to die; we do not accommodate suicides. But in hundreds of cases around the country every year, such laws are enforced, and hundreds of people die like Terri Schiavo. The only extraordinary thing about the Schiavo case is that her parents have done everything in their power to prevent her death, with the result that Schiavo has received much more process and much more publicity than others to whom the same thing has happened. One commentator described the Schiavo case as the “crime of the century.” In fact it is a banal, run-of-the-mill crime of a kind that happens every day in the United States.

And for this, we cannot blame the courts. The fault lies not in our judges but in ourselves, for we have created a society in which the law allows the strong and healthy to determine that some of the weak and infirm have lives not worth living and then to kill them. ~Robert T. Miller, First Things (courtesy of Orthodoxy Today)

Nothing—not a Mickey Mouse balloon, not even a mother’s soothing voice—would have gotten a response from Terri Schiavo, the comatose Florida woman whose right-to-die case entangled the courts and mesmerized America for months. That’s according to an autopsy report released today. Any message from the world would have had to travel the neural pathway to her neocortex, where it would then have been processed and a response generated. That first step, the initial incoming route, was destroyed some 15 years ago when, with her brain deprived of oxygen, she slipped into a persistent vegetative state.

The medical examiners found no evidence of strangulation or abuse—another question raised in the legal proceedings. “They did an extremely thorough job of ruling that out,” says Karen Weidenheim, chief of neuropathology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. And the autopsy concluded that the vision centers of her brain were dead, rendering her blind.

Her death on March 31 ended a familial, legal, and political struggle over removing her feeding tube. The autopsy showed that her brain was half the size of normal, and examiner Jon Thogmartin said at a press conference: “No amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons.” ~U.S. News and World Report

Initially, I had not intended to discuss the autopsy of the unfortunate Mrs. Schiavo. What the report told us spoke for itself, and the pro-existence enthusiasts, who lost all sense of perspective and proportion during the controversy earlier this year, could read the facts themselves if they were so inclined. Short of a fideism or spiritualism that mocks the understanding of the integral unity of body and soul in the Christian faith, no Christian can seriously believe that Mrs. Schiavo was meaningfully alive as a human person during the last many years. St. Gregory of Nyssa made the common-sense observation that the brain has a unique and important role in the unity of body and soul, which he deduced from the obviously deliterious consequences to human life resulting from serious brain trauma.

One cannot speak of “quality of life” or the lack of it when everything except basic respiration has ceased: one must speak of the absence of anything resembling human life. Integral union of body and soul cuts in both directions: it confirms that everything we do in the material world is spiritually significant, that human life and human nature are constituted of both physical and spiritual elements, and that human life is diminished to the extent that the bond between body and soul is weakened through injury and illness and finally severed in death. If deification in the flesh in this life is the basic perfection of the body-soul relationship in human life, the breakdown of the major organ responsible for cognition must be fairly far on the opposite side of the spectrum. Far from truly natural life in communion with God, this is simply persistence in an empty existence in which the soul cannot act through the body nor can it know peace. This is not to idolise cognition or make the brain the “location” of the soul, as some moderns are wont to do, but nonetheless to acknowledge that without cognition human physical life is almost indistinguishable from that of animals. One might persist in keeping someone’s body functioning long after reaching this point, but at that point this is not done for the sake of the injured person but for one’s own consolation.

The autopsy, which showed the extensive deterioration of Mrs. Schiavo’s brain from the lack of oxygen suffered after her initial collapse, might have provided a sober corrective to the hysteria of past months. But then I saw that our friends at First Things intended to dredge up this tragedy once again in their May issue to get a little more mileage out of this poor woman’s sad life. There are many people of goodwill who presumably believed that what was done to Mrs. Schiavo was an appalling crime. There was enough disinformation and enthusiasm during the final months of the controversy to mislead many people who might have thought differently had they had access to more of the facts, rather than relying on the innuendo and rumour that passed for much of the argument on the pro-existence side. The motivation to defend the helpless and the sick is an honourable and Christian one, but it was never more erroneously applied than in this case, where there was no chance of recovery or rehabilitation and simply a persistence in false hope. There was all the difference in the world between Mrs. Schiavo and the many other disabled or comatose people whose plight she was supposed to symbolise, and pro-life people would do well to meditate on that difference.