Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2003/ 4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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What I know as the mother of a "non-cognitive, vegetative state" 16-year-old | The quest for utopian socialism has its twists and turns. A woman has the right to choose when it comes to the life of her unborn child. But, in the exception-ridden liberal conscience, choice regarding her own life belongs to her husband. Husbands have no say in wives' abortions, but, according to those wacky Florida courts, they have the final say on their wives' lives. In the case of 39-year-old Terri Schiavo, her husband, complete with mistress and their children, wants her starved to death. A Florida court, finally halted in its unrighteous dominion by another Bush, ordered it so. Liberals oppose the death penalty for criminals, but not for innocents.

I have a conflict of interest on the Schiavo case. Our daughter Claire, who survives via a feeding tube, has the same fleeting smiles and darting eyes in pursuit of balloons as videos show Mrs. Schiavo has. My conflict is that my blood boils when doctors use terms such as "vegetative state" and "no cognitive functions" to describe Mrs. Schiavo and Claire.

Unless they are primary caregivers, doctors know little of the capabilities or desires of souls who remain captive in bodies that cannot function at full mental and/or physical speed. They view the smiles of glee and scrunched noses of distaste as "involuntary subcortical responses." What do they know of the power of a mother's voice? It induces eye flutters that spell out in Morse code, "I'm here. Talk to me again!"

The docs are cold-hearted because medicine is finite. Medicine cannot change these vegetative states. The same can be said of a hard-core addict or a victim of depression. Science has its limitations. But love and dedication combine with inner strength and miracles abound. Miracles need not be Lazarus-like risings from the bed to do the Macarena, but can emerge in the subtle sounds and movements of the indefatigable soul within screaming, "Hey, I'm alive!"

No two vegetative states are alike. Karen Ann Quinlan's father petitioned successfully to the New Jersey Supreme Court to have her respirator removed. Surprise, Dad! Karen breathed on her own, for ten years. Terry Wallis awoke from 18 years in a coma and asked for Mom, Pepsi and milk, in that order!

Even if they cannot defy odds, these patients leave us naturally. Fragile constitutions, susceptible lungs and immobility limit their time. As in the Quinlan case, they are taken by the mortal enemy of the neurologically impaired, pneumonia.

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Given these factors, that physicians know very little about that line between cognition and so-called vegetation, that miracles happen, and that fragile health succumbs, why the court petitions? Why the feeding tube removals? Why the rush? Death row inmates get more time, appeals and reprieves than these innocents.

Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, now armed with the ACLU, assures us that his wife wants to die. Friends of Nancy Cruzan, another "persistent vegetative" patient, had judges remove her feeding tube. These ex post facto choices are foisted upon those who cannot speak.

Courts have labored mightily in the vineyards of greedy relatives, diabolical murderers and petty friends for over 500 years to develop will and probate laws that avoid such he said/she said contentions when there are no written documents from decedents who can no longer speak.

Written proof, not assertions by those who have financial conflicts of interest, determines intent. This willy-nilly legal framework for taking the life of one who has not reduced such a desire to writing mocks the law's demands for caution and morality's edicts on the sanctity of human life.

The removal of feeding tubes, even from the "persistent vegetative state" patients is more than a slippery slope. Removal degrades and devalues human life. The reaction to the passing of Leo the dog on a California freeway carried more outrage than this court-ordered starvation death of a woman who clearly responds to her mother.

When loved ones slip into vegetative states, life becomes so messy. The costs, the work, the clipped wings from the demands of care. But, Mrs. Schiavo's parents want to give that care and physicians have volunteered for pro bono services. Mr. Schiavo has no worries.

That Mrs. Schiavo is still alive is the answer to this so-called ethical dilemma. Our souls are too shallow and our minds too finite to comprehend why Mrs. Schiavo is still here with us. She and our other "vegetables" are a treasure trove of insight. Humility abounds in their minds, so unaffected by the shallow demands of a world that measures worth by trivial materialistic pursuits. They offer the lessons of unconditional love and the blessings of service.

As the parent of a "non-cognitive, vegetative state" 16-year-old, who was, by all medical experts, not destined to live more than six months, I offer advice. Seize the opportunity to honor life, in all its forms. A body not constrained by the pettiness of appearance or consumed by the drive of ambition is a glimpse of the purity of heaven. Spend fleeting moments in the company of these angels. They will leave us all too soon, even with their feeding tubes intact. The veil between the eternities and this world turns transparent when you look into what medical science calls "non-responsive eyes." When you catch a glimpse of that beyond you will wonder, "Who wouldn't want to live in their utopia?"

And I do mean live.

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JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2003, Marianne M. Jennings