Did the Autopsy Find No Soul?

I wrote about Terri Schiavo while she was dying. Today the autopsy report came out. Todd Schnitt, a local radio talk show host here in Miami, was among many in the commentariat who crowed that the autopsy “proved” Terri’s husband was right to withdraw food and drink from her. The autopsy showed that she had suffered extensive and irreversible brain damage in the original stroke that left her in a persistent vegetative state.

As for me, I never thought she had any mental activity and never thought she had any hope of recovery. I just thought, and still think, that it is a terrible moral wrong to murder brain-damaged people.

Terri Schiavo was still a person. She still had a neshama. If she were a Jew and her family had to decide what to do according to halacha, they would have to continue food and water, via a feeding tube if there was no other way. At least that’s the halacha according to R’ Moshe Feinstein, the greatest posek of recent Jewish history.

If the person was days from death, there might not be a halachic obligation to put in a feeding tube in the first place. But she was not near death. She could have lived for years. To take the tube out once it was in would certainly be forbidden for a Jew. I don’t know the wrongs and rights of the case from the point of view of Florida law or of Noahide halacha, but just want to point out that Jews should not view the taking of human life with equanimity. Nor should they give orders to have their loved ones, or themselves G-d forbid, put to death when they lose consciousness.

She was a person. She was a human being. She was not a dog, not a doll, not a piece of furniture. Not only was she a person, she was a person who was very much loved and wanted, even if she could do nothing at all but make unconscious reflexive movements that resembled smiles. How horrible to kill an unwanted person. How much more horrible to kill someone whose family desperately wanted her alive and loved her devotedly.

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17 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    The whole Schiavo case was very upsetting. I still don’t know what the right thing would have been. Toby speaks of the woman’s soul. I understand that Rav Moshe’s ruling is clear on this issue, but the question of her soul bothers me.

    Maybe it’s my lack of imagination. I have a hard time separating soul from mind. If the part of her body that allows the soul to interact with the world is dead, which it apparently was in this case, surely G-d wouldn’t have prevented that part of her which is not confined to this world to continue on.

    Aren’t these two different issues? To say that we are forbidden to hasten physical death is not to say that the soul of a person like Terry Schiavo was still trapped in her body. If anything, I can see the demise of her body as a release to her, even if it wasn’t permissible.

    I don’t mean to say that what was done was correct. I just have a problem with the idea of a soul being… buried alive, so to speak.

  2. Micha says:

    The basic issue is that the US is adopting the stance that humanity equals “potential for biology supported consciousness”. (In contrast to conscious but dead souls, or living bodies that are incapable of ever waking up.)

    This is very problematic:

    First, because defining life is an inherently religious act. Science may decide what medical state a body is in, but mapping that physical condition to the words “alive” or “dead” is outside its purview. There is no way to avoid “church and state” issues. Any definition, even an empirical one supported by skeptics, is a religious stance.

    Second, because it means that people who are less conscious are less alive. The door is opened to making mentally retarted or autistic individuals “not fully human” under the law.

  3. DovBear says:

    There are two sides to this story. You’ve articulated one. Here is the other:

    Her husband, Michael, insisted that, like many other Americans, she expressed a strong wish not to be kept alive by extraordinary measures. Rather than gutlessly betraying her wishes when the going got rough, he went to court and spent his own money in an effort to honor his wife’s wishes. He didn’t insult her memory and their marriage by permiting others to salve their own heartbreak by maintaining Terry as a hollow shadow of her self. Some might call what he did an act of love.

    I realize you, Toby, don’t see it this way. And I respect that. But, there are at least two sides to every story, and my interpretation of the case is equally valid.

    (Also, a note to those who might object to what I wrote: You need not regard her husband, as some people do, as literally pathological or insane, only as misguided about the facts, for example, in believing that someone who is PSV is dead, or that it’s okay to remove the feeding tube from brain dead person, and so forth. By your lights, Michael made a mistake, a mistake that could have been corrected through education, but this mistake doesn’t make him a bad person, and it needn’t mean his motives were dishonarable.)

  4. murky says:

    “Terri Schiavo was still a person.”

    No, she wasn’t. She did look like a dazed, mute and supine person, but she had no thought or personality or memory, and the neural architectures that once supported those things were long gone. She was no more still a person than a juggler is still a juggler after losing his or her limbs. Terri Schiavo’s body once had belonged to a person, but it hadn’t for a long time before she stopped breathing. I don’t believe there’s anything auxiliary to consciousness and who we are beyond the structures and activity of the brain.

  5. Micha says:

    In order for her own wishes to matter (never mind whether they could have changed once she actually had to face the reality, or if her husband misunderstood), Mrs Schiavo had to already have been labeled not fully human. After all, we don’t allow suicidal people to jump off a bridge because in his depression he is a “hollow shadow of himself”. The right to protection even from oneself was already considered forfeit.

  6. eliyahu says:

    Toby, your compassion is wonderful. In this case, however, when you say “She still had a neshama.”, this shows a critical flaw in your reasoning. We do not have neshamas. We are neshamas, before birth, and after death. This is the fatal error in your conception of how we are to treat these matters.

  7. Zev says:

    “but this mistake doesn’t make him a bad person”

    Sure it does. Murdering a person through slow starvation is inherently wicked.

  8. Chana says:

    I understand the right of every human being to live, and to my mind, the Terri Schiavo resolution- to starve her- should never have happened.

    On the other hand, I wonder about the money spent. If I had the choice as I lay in a hospital bed, and knew that either people could keep on pouring money into me when I would never get better, or that money could go to someone else who could then live/ recover- would I not chooose to allow the money to go to someone else?

    I know this is complicated, especially since there are halakhic issues involved with organ donation and the like. But simply thinking with my mind/ heart, is that not what I would want done for me? How could I ask, should I ever need to, that someone give up an organ for me, but I would not be willing to give one for them? How could I desire people to risk their lives to save me (firemen, etc) and not be willing to risk mine? How could I ask to live when by doing so I may cause other people to die?

    I know the death of an individual outweighs these factors. I am aware of it. I know the story about the two men in the desert and the glass of water, about the “why is his blood redder than yours?” But now that it is done, and Terri Schiavo is dead, now that there is no going back- at least let us view her as being noble. The government, the husband, the people involved may not have had a place in the medical system. But Terri is dead so that others may benefit from the money formerly spent on her. Terri is dead so that others may live.

    You ask whether the autopsy found a soul. No. But Terri’s soul can be found in the lives of those who survive her…the lives who she will now “save.”

  9. Yaakov Menken says:


    We are neshamas before birth, and after death, and not in between?

    Every morning of every day, traditional Jews around the world say otherwise.

    Elokai, Neshama shenasata bi, tehorah hi. Ata Barasa, Ata Yatzarta, Ata Nafachta Bi, V’Ata Meshamra B’kirbi. V’ata asid litlah mimeni, u’l’hachazira bi l’asid lavo.

    “My G-d, the soul (neshama) that you placed in me, it is pure. You Created it, You Formed it, You Breathed it into me, and You Preserve it within me. And You Shall Take it from me in the future, and Shall Return it within me in the future to come.”

  10. eliyahu says:

    Of course, in between. But the neshama continues to exist, and is returned within me (placed in the body), just as you pointed out. This means our neshamas are in bodies, not that we are our bodies, and that our bodies have heshamas.

  11. Voice of Reason says:

    Wonderful, Eliyahu, you’ve made your point (R’ Motty Berger has been that point for years asking people questions which illustrate quite clearly that they identify more clearly with theit guf than they do their neshama). Unfortunately, the point you’ve made really doesn’t speak to the issue of whether or not it’s permissable (or morally acceptable, if they can possibly be different) to take action which seperates a person’s soul from their body, in other words to cause death (“netilas neshama” in loshon kodesh).

  12. Chana Meira says:

    Shalom Chana:

    I can understand the line of thinking that perhaps one would make a certain choice in a similar situation. However, we know that Terri did not make a choice. Others chose to kill her despite her right to, and evidence of wishes, for life and recovery to the fullest extent possible.

    Money was not an issue, except that money won in Court for the express purpose of taking care of Terri was misused by her guardian. I think what should be questioned is the mishandling of the patient’s funds — not whether or not to care for the patient with those funds.

    During the Schiavo question, there were stories shared by recovered people who believed that they, too, would have chosen death in various health circumstances. When faced with illness, disability, feeding tubes, and the plain reality of what was taking place, these same individuals reversed themselves and chose life. We just never know. But it may be safe to say we cannot project what we think we know upon the patient, as understandable as that is since we want to have compassion.

    Now that awareness have been raised, people know they can choose to write out their wishes and we may have to abide by this. However, when presented with conflicting information or unknown wishes, I believe there is nothing wrong with erring on the side of life. Of course, we should do what we can to preserve the dignity, health, comfort and prospects for the patient.

  13. Toby Katz says:

    Chana Meira wrote:

    “there is nothing wrong with erring on the side of life.”

    That is absolutely correct. Not only is there “nothing wrong with it,” that should always be the default in a moral society.

  14. DovBear says:

    Chana Meira wrote:
    “there is nothing wrong with erring on the side of life.”
    That is absolutely correct. Not only is there “nothing wrong with it,” that should always be the default in a moral society.

    I agree. So… are you pro-death penalty?

  15. Toby Katz says:

    Chana Meira:

    “there is nothing wrong with erring on the side of life.”


    That is absolutely correct. Not only is there “nothing wrong with it,” that should always be the default in a moral society.

    DovBear :

    I agree. So… are you pro-death penalty?

    Only when a person has been found guilty of murder in a court of law. When wondering whether I should kill innocent people whom I find really, really annoying, I always err on the side of life.

  16. DovBear says:

    Only when a person has been found guilty of murder in a court of law. When wondering whether I should kill innocent people whom I find really, really annoying, I always err on the side of life.

    But we all know of instances when the court got it wrong, and we all know that it’s hard to apply the death penalty fairly. Shouldn’t we “err on the side of life.” Why kill a convicted murderer if there is a chance new evidence might one day exonerate him, or if there is a chance the judge or jury let their biases influence the entacing decision. “Err on the side of life” is more than just a slogan, isn’t it?

  17. Toby Katz says:

    DovBear wrote:

    “Why kill a convicted murderer if there is a chance new evidence might one day exonerate him,”

    Please see my answer at:


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