Pulling the Plug on Religious Freedom

The battle rages on.

No, I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan.

Fox News is reporting one battle for religious freedom taking place on the doorstep of the nation’s capital.  In Washington, DC the parents of a 12-year old boy are fighting the hospital’s efforts to remove him from life support after doctors declared him dead on Tuesday. 

In the District of Columbia, the law provides for hospitals to declare death when there is no brain activity.  The hospital is awaiting a ruling from the DC Superior Court to procede with its plan to disconnect the boy’s ventilator and discontinue the medical treatment that is keeping his heart beating.

But the parents, who are Orthodox Jews, argue that the hospital’s determination to remove life support infringes upon their freedom to exercise their religion.  Their attorney Jeffrey Zuckerman, spoke to the Washington Post: 

Under Jewish law and their faith, there is no such thing as brain death.  Their religious beliefs are entitled to respect. 

However, according to Sofia Smith, one of the boy’s physicians,  

“This child has ceased to exist by every medical definition,” adding that she and her staff members are “distraught at what is providing futile care to the earthly remains of a former life.”

Once again we find the conflict over what, or who, defines life.

Once again, the scientific medical community uses its definition to attempt to force people with faith-based views of life and death to accept its judgment and subsequent rationale for providing or witholding medical services.

This doctor is “distraught”?  The truth is that she is more concerned about her own feelings and the feelings of her staff as they continue to provide care to “a child [who] has ceased to exist…to the earthly remains of a former life.” 

Outrageous.  Highly insensitive.  But not surprising.

After all, an unborn child has become merely a “byproduct of conception”  until it is capable of surviving on its own outside its mother’s womb.

And now medical doctors are beginning to extend that definition to those who need life support…especially if those patients are never going to be like they once were…especially if they are going to need that support until they take their last breath. 

According to the doctor, this child has “ceased to exist.”

But the parents would disagree, arguing that they are required by their faith to provide care for their child until his life has ended. 

And by their definition, it’s not over.

Nonetheless, the doctor wants to exercise her choice to withhold care because she is uncomfortable about providing such “futile” treatment because it will not result in restoring the child to “life” by her definition.

So who gets to make this choice?  The doctor…or the people who loved and cared for this child for his entire existence?

We should all fear the answer to this question.  We should all fear becoming ill or dependent on anyone who has the power to define for us what life is… or isn’t.  

We should all fear that someone is going to pin the “earthly remains” or “former life” label on us should we ever become incapable of speaking or communicating.

And we have so much to lose if they do, both individually and corporately. 

They will use euphemisms like “earthly remains”, “byproducts of conception” and “choice” to shield themselves from selfish decisions that infringe on other’s rights.  And they will decide who lives…and who dies…based, as in this case, on the seeming futility of providing medical care for someone incapable of responding in a scientifically “appropriate” way.

And this is the real danger for all of us.  Because if we allow only science to create the definition of what life is, then by default, it can create the definition of what life isn’t.

The Nazis did. 

And The Holocaust continues to haunt us.

Because with science, the definitions always change.  What we know is always eclipsed by what we don’t know.  And the more we learn, the less we find we truly understand.

In short, scientific definitions evolve.  They can change with new discoveries. 

And they often do.  Technology continues to develop.  Who can say what we will know ten, twenty, fifty years from now that will enable us to reach beyond the seeming lack of brain activity to find evidence of life that we cannot discern today despite our great scientific advancements?

Today’s medical definition of life relies upon technology that becomes rapidly obsolete.

But faith does not.  

A spiritual definition of life provides hope and a sense of purpose, even when all appears to be lost…or dead.  And constant, unwavering faith practiced, even in the shadow of death, provides comfort and meaning to those who are grieving. 

And let’s not forget, miracles do, sometimes, occur. 

And when they do, they are often the result of prayer and faith.  But you won’t find those definitions in a medical dictionary.

However, you will find them both, in practice, on the battlefield.  And this is a battle to be sure. 

Losing the right to practice faith in death may well result in losing the right to practice it in life. 

But if that occurs, faith will not be the only casualty of science.

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