The woman is a vegetable. The husband gets to decide whether to pull the plug. The religious right has seized this issue to appeal to its base. Only one interesting question remains worth inquiry. Why does this issue appeal to the conservative base? Why does it inspire them?

Like all reasonable people living in the 21st century, you know that the brain is a massively parallel computer made of trillions of neurons and connections between them. Thanks to magnetic, radioactive, and x-ray scans, it’s rather obvious that the brain is a system of interconnected modules that do different things. Break one part or another, and an aspect of the person disappears. It is gone in the same way as the data on a magnetized hard drive.

A person possessing this obvious data sees a vegetative state as such. Enough of the individual subsystems that make up a person have been damaged or destroyed so that the person is reduced to the mental capacity of an animal or less. He or she no longer has an identity, cannot achieve goals, nor have any meaningful experiences. Rather simple.

Surprisingly, there is an alternative way of viewing the brain. I’m not sure of the technical details, since there probably are none, but the essence is that it is powered by some kind of “eternal soul.” This soul is either there or it isn’t. It arrives before birth, departs at death, and contains the entire individual.

A person using this model is stupefied by the vegetative state. Since the soul leaves at death, while the person is alive, it’s fully intact. There are no degrees. Death is simply it going somewhere else. So what’s up with this woman here who’s not dead? She’s smiling and moving and grunting. The soul must still be in there somewhere. It must be trapped! Maybe if we leave her hooked up longer science will figure out how to free it. We certainly can’t kill her. That’s not our right to send a soul up to heaven at our whim.

The Schiavo case mocks the fundamental beliefs of the religious. It asks them frightening questions. “What happens to the soul if the person doesn’t die immediately and instead degrades? Is it still in there or did it already leave? If it left why is she still making faces? What if the ‘soul’ can be chipped away at to the point that its existence is irrelevant, as science says?”

Perhaps what truly threatens the religious is that if we are allowed to pull the plug, we assert that our answers to these questions are correct and that they are the answers that apply to everyone. They are universal, scientific answers.

The sciences string end-to-end nicely, explaining virtually everything we’d ever want to know. Only one large gap remains, between neurobiology and psychology. One describes what happens in a single neuron, the other, what happens when fifteen billion of them get together. Religion has always hid in the gaps of science, and this is its last bastion.

We may be witness to the first battle of religion’s final war. Pulling the plug on any vegetative state implies that a scientific consciousness will eventually be understood and that souls are not only corporeal, but that they receive no special government protection when science deems them to be damaged beyond repair.

Schiavo’s case threatens the existence of the eternal soul at the end of a person’s life. Is there a similar issue that threatens its beginning? Yes, stem cell research. Surely the soul is infused into the person very early in their existence. If it’s there so early, what happens if we take the stem cells, soul and all, and use them to repair someone else’s spine? Since the soul doesn’t get to form its own person, what happens to it? Is it forced to return to heaven?

Science’s use of stem cells for research and decree that a vegetative person might as well be dead make an absolute mockery of the religious idea that our essence is eternal and simply visits the earth. Not only is it made irrelevant when the soul enters at the beginning of life if ever, it is irrelevant what becomes of it once the brain is permanently damaged. Should we really be surprised that such religious fervor accompanies these attempts by science to stomp religion out of its last stronghold?

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