[David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and author, most recently, of The Muse in the Machine (Free Press, 2002). The following is reprinted from The Wall Street Journal ©2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.]
The death-by-starvation facing Terri Schiavo was averted last week when the Florida Legislature passed a bill letting Gov. Jeb Bush intervene to save her life. Mrs. Schiavo has been severely mentally disabled since her heart stopped for a time in 1990. Although doctors have called her condition "vegetative," she breathes on her own, her eyes are open, and in video clips she appears to respond with smiles to the sound of her mother's voice. That is one ground on which her parents have pleaded with authorities to let their daughter live. But a court, acting on her husband's petition, ordered her feeding tube removed, and until the Legislature acted, Gov. Bush had no authority to override Michael Schiavo's decision.
Mrs. Schiavo's parents believe that she knows them and is comforted by them. They believe they are communing with their daughter. Given my own experience with the gravely ill and the dying, I will take the parents' word over the doctors' any day.
And who dares say you have no right to commune with your gravely ill child? To comfort your child? To pray for your child? Who dares say you have no right to hope that she will recover no matter what the doctors say? Who dares say you have no right to comfort, commune with and pray for her even if you have given up hope? Yes, the woman is mortally ill. Who dares say that her life is therefore worthless, to be cut off at her husband's whim?
Perhaps you believe that those who are suffering, or choose death, or are wholly unconscious, have a "right" to die-but those arguments don't apply to Mrs. Schiavo. They are irrelevant here. Except-not quite irrelevant. After all, those are the arguments that have brought us, as a society, to a state where we contemplate killing Mrs. Schiavo before her parents' eyes, maybe (for all we know) as she smiles right at them.
The rabbis speak often of the crucial religious obligation of visiting and comforting the sick. They derive the requirement directly from what they call the "greatest principle of Torah," a certain verse in Leviticus: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." God himself is said to have visited ailing Abraham. When you visit sick people, your most important duty is to pray for their recovery. Such an act matters profoundly not only to the sick but (as a positive religious obligation) to the visitor, and the society he represents. …