It would be tempting to say that another hurricane struck Florida last month, where in the center of the eye, the occupant of a room in a Pinellas Park hospice laid blissfully unaware. But it is not true. Hurricanes are indifferent, hurricanes are uncontrollable. No, this was a battle in a cold war. A battle that occurred every bit as much inside the hospice as it did in the halls of Congress, as it did in the Florida state house, as it did before any number of judicial benches, with a battlefield we ought to survey in the light of following days. What we see when we do so is revealing.
First is the abuse of a perfectly valid statement, “Cogito, ergo sum.” Or in the context of Descartes' original objective, it is more accurately stated, “I think, therefore I know that I am.” What we have seen here is the assertion, which does not follow logically, "If I do not think, then I am not." This is where those who allow, if not, in fact, insist on, taking the life of a person in the notorious persistent vegetative state. That was the point of many who called for a MRI or PET scan for Terri Schiavo, or the ubiquitous CAT scan displays of healthy and damaged brains, including Ms. Schiavo’s, to influence us that her disability was proof that she lacked personhood. Such acts betray a misunderstanding of human existence that presumes mind and body are separate.
Advances in neurology have served to demystify the mind by highlighting the electrochemistry of the brain and the discovery of neurons outside the skull. If ever there might have been a doubt, the brain is part of the body; a major organ, but not the determinant of life, or humanness. The more we learn, the more “mind and body” becomes “body and body.” In this context, brain function is more akin to other bodily functions than a special class properly reserved for the soul. This error of inflating the meaning of cognition, however, is a symptom of a more grave, more widespread problem.
Those who dismiss that there is any inherent value of life are included obviously, but so too are many who bemoan not knowing unambiguously her wishes, even if they are among those who want to “err on the side of life,” because, at least implicitly, they condone the self-absorbed act of suicide. A is A. Life is life. And as such, it is its own purpose. Yes, Ms. Schiavo the person, union of body and soul, possessed free will. If she were to have left explicit instructions to deny food and hydration, a true culture of life would not, in fact could not, support destroying the fundamental uniqueness of her person even though her capacities be diminished.
Every cell of our physical being, the body itself, impels us to life until its natural end. This can only be arrested by the soul’s captain by exchanging it for the affirmation of another’s. Deny this truth universally and society welcomes a peculiar tyranny of self-inflicted chaos--life becomes not life.
Still, we have granted Ms. Schiavo something short of a legacy with the fervent cultural desire to find a grand meaning, such as defense from a theocracy, reining the imperial judiciary, raising the awareness of eating disorders, etc. The moral challenge to us is to not confuse her life with her cause célèbre. To further reduce the meaning of her life to a cause is to objectify her and deny her life’s inherent value, for its own sake.
Terri Schiavo grew up in Pennsylvania and is described by her family as a shy woman who loved animals, music, and basketball. A funeral Mass for her was held earlier this evening in Gulfport, FL. Her cremated remains will be buried in the Philadelphia area. She breathed her last because of complications caused by dehydration. She died because the “inviolable mystery” of her human person was violated tragically by a philosophical error. May she rest in peace.
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