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Mama Deb
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Mama Deb [userpic]
Thoughts shallow and deep

There is a young Marine lieutenant in the office. He is tall and redheaded and in a dark blue uniform, and I keep sneaking looks at him. Especially when he left to make a cellphone call...

1. The Federal government has absolutely no place in this, and no one should make political hay out of a family's tragedy.

2. To my husband and others: If I am *ever* (God forbid!) in such a position, do not do anything to hasten my death. Do not starve me to death or deny me essential care. Maybe do not do anything prolong life other than essential care and whatever is needed for comfort, and please consult our rabbi at every turn, but do not hasten it.

A good editorial from the New York Sun

The Sages and Mrs. Schiavo

New York Sun Staff Editorial
March 21, 2005

The story is told in the Talmud of the aged and dying rabbi who had become a goses - a person between life and death. The great rabbi cannot die because, as Jonathan Rosen relates in his book "The Talmud and the Internet," outside "all his students are praying for him to live and this is distracting to his soul. His maidservant climbs to the roof of the hut where the Rabbi is dying and hurls a clay vessel to the ground. The sound diverts the students, who stop praying. In that moment, the Rabbi dies and his soul goes to heaven. The servant, too, the Talmud says, is guaranteed her place in the world to come.

We found ourselves thinking of that story as the crowds of citizens gathered outside the hospice of Terry Schiavo - and in many other places - to pray for her, while inside doctors, given the go-ahead by a court in Florida, disconnected Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tubes on instructions of her husband. As the drama intensified Mrs. Schiavo's parents scrambled with allies to gain in the Congress passage of a law that would enable the federal courts to take over the case, and President Bush returned to Washington from Texas to be in a position to sign it.

What an extraordinary country America is that such a drama can erupt over the life of a single individual. It seems to us plain on its face - given the way things have gone so far - that the secular law, at least up until the weekend, was with Terry's husband, who wants to let her die and had already before the weekend's drama proven himself prepared to remove the feeding tubes. But it is also plain that millions of Americans, Christians and Jews and Muslims, are praying for an outcome that can be summed up in the biblical admonition, "choose life." That is certainly the formulation that President Bush has cited.

The drama sent us to reading about our obligations in respect, first, of a goses. The term derives from the troubled breathing sound that a dying person makes in what is sometimes called the death rattle, when death is actually coming, irreversibly, and is imminent. Even in the case of a goses, Jewish law requires that everything must be done to save a goses and no action may be taken that would hasten death. And there is another category than a goses, called a terefah, which is an incurably ill person. According to Maimonides, as cited by a contemporary American rabbi, Elliott Dorff, one who kills a terefah is not subject to the death penalty for murder, but may be subject to divine punishment.

Yet Mrs. Schiavo is neither a goses nor a terefah. She is a woman who can breathe well on her own. Mrs. Schiavo is more like an infant or a helpless old person or an Alzheimer's patient, unable to eat or drink on her own, but able to breath and survive if helped to eat and drink. This is why many religious Americans are praying so fervently for Mrs. Schiavo's life to be spared and this is why the Congress is scrambling. Were Mrs. Schiavo's husband or nurse able to rush, figuratively, to the roof of her hospice and drop a clay pot onto the pavement below, startling those who are praying for her and interrupting their prayers, it seems that Mrs. Schiavo's soul would not be released. She would continue breathing on her own and become hungry and in need of food and water.

Is the intensity of the contest for the life of Mrs. Schiavo a cipher for a larger struggle in our polity, over values, say, or abortion? Here we think of another sage who took, late in his own life, to telling those who asked about abortion, "Let's talk, for a moment, about not the beginning of life but the end." We speak of Robert L. Bartley of the Wall Street Journal. He was wise enough to see that the two questions are at some deep level connected. And full of important subtleties and maddening, painful problems. It may be that the secular authorities will, and should, decide this. But in thinking about Mrs. Schiavo we have found ourselves impressed more than anything with the fact that the questions our country is facing are not new and have been wrestled with for centuries by the sages who interpret laws that are more enduring than those of any legislature.


Re: A good editorial from the New York Sun

The concepts in the editorial are mostly good. There's just one problem:

Mrs. Schiavo is more like an infant or a helpless old person or an Alzheimer's patient, unable to eat or drink on her own, but able to breath and survive if helped to eat and drink.

This is in serious dispute. From all accounts of the doctors who have examined her, and not the edited videotapes, she can breathe and may (I've heard conflicting reports of this) be capable of swallowing, as a reflex, if properly stimulated.

CAT scans from some years ago show that her cerebral cortex (in which all higher brain functions are performed) degenerated long ago, and has been replaced by spinal fluid. All medical knowledge indicates that adult brain tissue never, ever regenerates.

In my mind, that makes her at best a goses. I have inquired elsewhere about the definition of death under halacha; it's a serious inquiry, and clearly relevant. If there's no personhood remaining, and no hope of it returning, is the body alive or dead? And if dead, what should be done to bring cellular function in line with the definition?

Not easy, and not in any event anything other than tragic.

Re: A good editorial from the New York Sun

All medical knowledge indicates that adult brain tissue never, ever regenerates.

Please don't believe that I'm trying to make this point in the Schiavo case, of which I don't know enough; but this is not so certain. There have been instances of braincells re-routing information & expanding to allot brainpower to information usually otherwise processed. The correct assessment here, is that medical knowledge knows very little still.

Re: A good editorial from the New York Sun

With regard to rerouting, yes, the brain does that. What you're thinking of, though, is all done within the segment of the brain called the cerebral cortex. If it's damaged, thought and memory processes can happen in ways that would not normally have happened, taking alternate pathways and such.

The problem is that Ms. Schiavo apparently has essentially none of that portion of her brain left. The initial damage and further degeneration (common in this sort of case) have left only the portions of her brain responsible for reflexes, such as breathing and regulating heartbeat. There's nothing to reroute within.

While medical knowledge is, in fact, limited compared to what there is to be known, in all of the body of knowledge currently accumulated there is no indication of cerebral cortex material regenerating in an adult. That's what I was trying to say; not at all that we know everything about the brain. But everything I have seen, all the evidence, suggests that the portion that made her a unique and aware being, is gone.

I just wish there were some way to handle this that was less painful, all around.

The New York Sun is an interesting paper. I've heard the Talmudic story before, although the version I heard (or possibly misheard) was that it was the maidservant who was praying and who had to be stopped.

I do know that by Jewish law, she's alive. I also know that she's not Jewish, so it's not relevent to her - what's relevent to her are her wishes, her religion's norms and, yes, the wishes of her family.

And neither congress nor any but the local courts should have any say in the matter at all.