On yesterday's anniversary of Terri Shiavo's death, I read about a new study that offers promise for patients who diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that when testing brain-injured patients with a functional MRI, they found 4 of the 23 tested responded to commands and exhibited brain activity in the same areas as healthy control subjects. One of the four patients was even able to correctly answer questions with his brain activity, even though he could produce no communication with his body.
This study opens the door for medical professionals and family members to reevaluate how persistent vegetative state patients are diagnosed, treated and valued as human beings. In 2004, Pope John Paul II argued that health care providers are morally bound to provide food and water to all people living in a persistent vegetative state, directly advocating for Terri Shiavo, who was on no life support other than nourishment. The next year, the courts, her doctors and her husband succeeded, against the pleas of her family, in withholding all food and water from her until she died almost 2 weeks later.
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus tells the disciples what to expect at the final judgment, how the Son of Man comes as King and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him and divided into two groups. To one group he will say "I was hungry but you would not feed me, thirsty but you would not give me a drink... When those condemned answer, "When Lord, did we ever see you hungry or thirsty... and not help you?" He will reply, "I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me." Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
How can anyone argue that patients unable to communicate with their body are not among the most vulnerable in our society? Do we not have a Christian duty to protect and care for them? The case of Terri Shiavo showed us how far our society has turned from Jesus' message.
Through continued prayer, compassion and medical research we can reach out to those most vulnerable and provide for them as our faith and humanity commands us.