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Faiths vary on life-or-death care choices

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"If she is allowed to die of dehydration and malnutrition, every American who is sick, elderly, infirm, ill, mentally or physically handicapped is significantly less safe in this culture than they were before Terri Schiavo was allowed to die," Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Conference's ethics commission, said as Schiavo appeared to hover on the brink of death. "Once you move from a sanctity-of-life ethic, [that] there are some things that should never be done to a human being, to a quality-of-life ethic, where human beings are making decisions for other human beings about what is a sufficient quality of life that deserves the sustaining of life, you are on a very steep and slippery slope to a very dangerous place."

Faithful voices on both sides of the debate are quick to point out their reverence for all human life as a divine gift. Theological differences are instead playing out in varied interpretations of medical technology, its ultimate purpose, and what certain of its readings have to say in spiritual terms in cases where the physical body has undergone radical changes.

In the view of Unitarian minister and death-with-dignity activist Ralph Mero, for instance, Schiavo's feeding tube has become a form of "futile medical treatment" that can be justifiably discontinued. The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, sees the tube as a vehicle of "basic care" and nutritional sustenance to which any ill person is entitled, according to Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In March 2004, Pope John Paul II clarified this understanding and its relevance to patients everywhere in a persistent vegetative state. While the Vatican has nuanced its position over the past 30 years, allowing for "extraordinary medical treatment" to be discontinued when such measures become overly burdensome to a patient, what's regarded as basic sustenance remains a necessity in all cases,regardless of prognosis or quality of life.

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