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Did Descartes Doom Terri Schiavo?

John Leland

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In the parade of faces talking about Terri Schiavo last week, two notable authorities were missing: Aristotle and Descartes. Yet their legacy was there.

Beneath the political maneuvering and legal wrangling, the case re-enacted a clash of ideals that has run through the history of Western thought. And in a way, it's the essential question that has been asked by philosophers since the dawn of human civilization. Is every human life precious, no matter how disabled? Or do human beings have the right to self-determination and to decide when life has value?

"The clash is about how we understand the human person," said Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a conservative policy group.

The plea last week to prolong Ms. Schiavo's feeding, against the wishes of her husband or what courts determined to be her own expressed inclinations, echoed the teachings of Aristotle, who considered existence itself to be inviolable.

On the other side, the argument that Ms. Schiavo's life could be judged as not worth living echoed Descartes, the Enlightenment philosopher who defined human life not as biological existence - which might be an inviolable gift from God - but as consciousness, about which people can make judgments.

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Posted: 29-Mar-05



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