I never believed that I would live in a country that would, in effect, execute a brain-damaged woman who never hurt anyone in her life. The story of Terri Schiavo should outrage every decent American. While our soldiers valiantly fight and die across the sea so complete strangers can enjoy human rights, here at home an American woman who suffered severe brain damage 15 years ago is being subjected to death by dehydration and starvation by order of a judge. Today, her feeding tube was removed.
The humanity of every society is determined first and foremost by how it treats its most helpless citizens, and a nation that is prepared to murder a feeble and vulnerable woman who can breathe but not eat on her own must take a deeper look at the source of its ethics.
Before Hitler came for the Jews and the gypsies, he first came after the mentally handicapped. He offered this rationale for euthanasia: "In nature, there is no pity for the lesser creatures when they are destroyed so that the fittest may survive. Going against nature brings ruin to man. It is only Jewish impudence to demand that we overcome nature." Hitler, who was a committed evolutionist and applied the ruthless principals of natural selection to the human species, opposed "artificial" means of keeping the infirm alive. The species was strengthened when its weakest constituents perished, just as nature decreed.
Charles Darwin expressed his own belief in stronger and more feeble parts of the human family when he famously wrote, "The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world."
Thankfully, the United States does not derive its ethics from Darwin, but from Sinai. We do not believe in the quality of life, but in its sanctity. Since Hitler was the enemy of life, he despised not just Judaism, but Christianity, which in turn embraced the biblical idea of the infinite value of every human life and how each individual, regardless of the degree of brain cognition, was possessed of the divine.
Hitler famously said, "The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. ... The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity." Hitler spent much of his table talk, faithfully recorded by Martin Bormann, attacking Judeo-Christian ethics: "This filthy reptile raises its head whenever there is a sign of weakness in the state, and therefore it must be stamped on. We have no sort of use for a fairy story invented by the Jews."
How the United States could today devalue the life of the infirm by removing a brain-damaged woman's feeding tube, and unwittingly ally itself with the euthanasia program of the history's foremost monster, should send shivers down the spine of every American.
But biblical ethics aside, there is also common sense and logic. Should we really take what might have been a throw-away comment from a wife to her husband about not wanting to live in a vegetative state as the rationale to murder a human being? Apparently, Terri and her husband were watching some film about a person in a coma when Terri told her husband she would never want to live like that. But people make comments like that during movies all the time without really meaning them.
And even if Terri Schiavo expressly wanted to die, does that mean we should kill her? Dr. Kevorkian is sitting in prison for the rest of his life precisely because he killed people who wished to die. How is this different?
And what jurisdiction should Terri's husband, Michael, have here? He maintains that he is fighting to remove his wife's feeding tube to keep his pledge to her that she be allowed to die with dignity.
Now this is curious. The husband has taken other pledges to his wife, which apparently are far less meaningful to him. For example, in marrying her, he pledged to stand by her "in sickness and in health." Yet, many years ago he abandoned Terri, moved in with his girlfriend and had children with this other woman. Apparently, his pledge of sexual fidelity did not mean much to him, either.
Now, I'm not suggesting that Michael Schiavo should have remained celibate for the last 15 years, and I understand the need for human companionship. But he could easily have divorced Terri and left her in her parents' care rather than cheating on her and having children out of wedlock. But staying married to your wife just to ensure that she dies sounds a lot to me like wanting to inherit her estate. But honestly, which sane judge, in this case Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer, would allow a man who is living with, and has children with, another woman, to make life-and-death decisions concerning his wife? This is a shocking affront to basic decency.
Furthermore, Judge Greer accepted the opinion of doctors who said Ms. Schiavo, 41, is in a "persistent vegetative state," the definition of which, according to the New York Times, is "damage to her cerebral cortex [that] has made her incapable of emotion, memory or thought."
But woe to a nation that determines that the sanctity of life is determined by a capacity to feel emotion, memory or thought. Before he died, Ronald Reagan was so ravaged by Alzheimer's that he had lost all memory and all capacity for cognitive thought. But could one only imagine a sane individual arguing that Reagan should have been denied food years before his 2004 death because he had become worthless? The same applies to millions of the elderly who inhabit our homes for the aged. A great many do nothing but sit in a chair or lie in bed with scarcely movement or memory. How far are we from a time when calls will go forth to deny them all food as well?
What comes to mind in the story of Terri Schiavo is the famous quotation of Pastor Martin Niemöller concerning moral failure in the face of the Nazis: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for me." Terry Schiavo has no voice, so we must become her voice.
I shudder for my country to think that such acts of barbarity can take place in the world's foremost democracy and humanity's guarantor of liberty and freedom.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a nationally syndicated radio host daily from 2-5 p.m. EST on the Liberty Broadcasting Network, and was named by Talkers magazine as one of America’s 100 most important talk-radio hosts. A best-selling author of 14 books, his latest work is "Face Your Fear” (St. Martins Press).