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LTE: Saving Schiavo's Soul

LTE: Saving Schiavo's Soul

by David Veksler

The ongoing debate over the fate of Terri Schiavo is a revealing example of the differences between a secular and a religious world view. Those who advocate that Terry be kept alive and those supporting her right to die have two very different conceptions of the soul. The difference is crucial because differences in their metaphysical views have significant ethical and political implications.

According to the secular philosophy, the soul is the essence of who an individual is – the essence of his character, and the motive force of his actions. It is a unique trait of human beings, who are able to guide their own actions and their course in life through the exercise of their conceptual consciousness. Because the mind is a consequence of the process of the brain, the soul is also made possible by the biological processes of the human body and cannot exist without it. Life, in the secular philosophy, is a process of acting on values of one’s choosing, and happiness is the consequence of their successful accomplishment. This goes on until one cannot or does not choose to engage in the process of value-pursuit and dies.

According to the religious philosophy, the soul is a spiritual entity, separable from the body, and exists in some non-material realm apart from the material world. According to this philosophy, the soul is an immortal entity temporarily attached to a physical body by the whim of an all-powerful being. Since the soul does not “belong” to the mortal being, it comes with certain conditions, usually whatever the local mystics deem to be proper. According to the religious philosophy, a moral life consists of dutifully following the commandments of a higher being in order to make one’s soul less susceptible to misery in a future state of existence, such as heaven, Valhalla, or an afterlife. Since the choice to live is not up to mortal humans to make, the choice to die cannot be either, since their soul and thus their life does not belong to them. Furthermore, the end of mental activity does not mean the death of the soul, which remains trapped in the body as long as it is biologically alive, just as an fetus possesses a soul prior to developing a conceptual consciousness.

The vast difference and the ethical implications of these world views should be clear. In the secular philosophy, man has a “self-made soul” that he shapes and that shapes his life. In the mystic philosophy, man is granted his soul by a god and must obey that deity or expose the soul to “eternal damnation” in the beyond. Religious groups oppose the right to die for the same reason that they oppose happiness as the ultimate moral end: it represents a threat to their conception of human nature.

Terri Schiavo is not an isolated case, as lawmakers claimed when they blatantly disregarded the Constitution and federalism in an attempt to preserve her body – it is an example of the same reasoning they use to oppose the right to die and abortion. It is a reasoning that denies the essential difference between human beings and carrots on a mental and physical level and claims instead that the difference exists in some unreachable, imperceptible, and unknowable realm. It is no wonder then, why they must resort to force to bully their beliefs on those who live their lives for a this-worldly purpose.


  1. Pingback: Benjo Blog
  2. David, since you posted your comments on my site I’m going to post my reply to you on yours. I hope you don’t mind but I’m afraid you may not go back to read it otherwise.

    “Well, David, I hate to be the one to break the news to you but Christians are some of the happiest people on earth! We just find our happiness in our families, clean fun, socializing with great people (not all saved by the way) and doing what God would like us to do to the best of our ability.

    It may be a “mystic philosophy” to you, but it’s real to us. And we don’t love God to prevent our souls from eternal damnation, although if we reject His Son Jesus that will happen. We do it because He loved us and we love Him. Unconditionally. We will never measure up to His standards but His Son Jesus paid the price for me and you and everyone else who will just accept Him as Lord and savior.

    To quote you: “the soul is an immortal entity temporarily attached to a physical body by the whim of an all-powerful being.”

    God does nothing on a “whim”. He knew from before the beginning of what we call time about each of us down to how many hairs on our heads. Nothing with God is an accident or a mistake.

    One day, the Bible says, “Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God.” That means you too, David. The question is will it be too late for you? I’ll keep you in my prayers.”

    Have a nice life.

  3. The post-mortem:

    After her death, Schiavo’s body was taken to the office of the medical examiner for Pinellas and Pasco counties. The autopsy, led by Dr. Jon Thogmartin, occurred on April 1, 2005. Thogmartin also arranged for specialized cardiac and genetic examinations to be made. The official autopsy report[60] was released on June 15, 2005. Examination of Schiavo’s nervous system revealed extensive injury. The brain itself weighed 615 g, only half the weight expected for a female of her age, height, and weight.

    Microscopic examination revealed extensive damage to nearly all brain regions, including the cerebral cortex, the thalami, the basal nuclei, the hippocampus, the cerebellum, and the midbrain. The neuropathologic changes in her brain were precisely of the type seen in patients who enter a PVS following cardiac arrest. Throughout the cerebral cortex, the large pyramidal neurons that comprise some 70 percent of cortical cells—critical to the functioning of the cortex—were completely lost. The pattern of damage to the cortex, with injury tending to worsen from the front of the cortex to the back, is also typical. There was marked damage to important relay circuits deep in the brain (the thalami)—another common pathologic hallmark of PVS. The damage was, in the words of Thogmartin, “irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons.”[61] Dr. Stephen J. Nelson, P.A., cautioned that “[n]europathologic examination alone of the decedent’s brain – or any brain for that matter – cannot prove or disprove a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state or minimally conscious state.”[62] The vegetative state is a behaviorally defined syndrome of complete unawareness, to self and to environment, that occurs in a person who nevertheless experiences wakefulness. As the condition is defined in clinical terms, it can therefore only be diagnosed in persons who, at some point, are shown to meet those clinical terms. Ancillary investigations, such as CT scans, MRI, EEGs, and lately fMRI and PET scanning, may only provide support for the clinical impression—as might the pathologic findings, after death. In the case of Terri Schiavo, seven of the eight neurologists who examined her in her last years stated that she met the clinical criteria for PVS; the serial CT scans, EEGs, the one MRI, and finally, the pathologic findings, were consistent with that diagnosis.

    The cause of the cardiac arrest which felled Schiavo 15 years before she died has never been determined. Aside from a localized, healed inflammation, the cardiac pathologist who studied Schiavo’s heart found it and the coronary vessels to be healthy. Although it was widely speculated that Schiavo suffered from an eating disorder that caused a serious electrolyte disturbance, stopping her heart, the autopsy itself showed little evidence to support this claim. The examiners also found no evidence that Schiavo had been the victim of trauma or foul play.

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