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Terri Schiavo and Science in the News

Robert Fludd

At some point during the Terri Schiavo fiasco, I saw a right-wing spokesmodel on CNN say something like, "I was in a coma once and I'm sure glad they didn't kill ME!" So, the neurologist she was debating pointed out that she didn't have the same condition that Schiavo had. CNN's host didn't bother to get this little confusion sorted out during the segment — not even close. But the science did matter, desparately.

Although the science of neurology was the core of the case, all the thousands of hours of coverage did not add up to America's education about the brain. That was a lost opportunity. A great thumbnail discussion of the science behind the Schiavo case was on NPR's Talk of the Nation's Science Friday, but I'm not sure Americans listen to NPR a heck of a lot ...

To my ears, the great unspoken core of the story was the anxiety most people seem to feel around the idea of the brain as the organ of awareness. I find most people dislike the idea that your awareness, wakefulness, personality, emotions, identity, spirituality, consciousness, and soul are all artifacts generated by the meat inside your skull. When the meat goes bad, there's no more "you." As neurology advances, I bet we're going to face increasingly counter-intuitive brain conditions and even more vexing medical and moral decisions. We better get ready, in part by facing the facts.

None of this is to say that the main conflict was between science and religion — after all, Americans of faith were mostly on science's side on this one. As I watched Shiavo's parents fight to keep Terry hanging around, I kept hearing the Carter Family sing "Don't you want to go to heaven? Don't you want God's bosom to be your pillow when the world's on fire?" Perhaps Pete Seeger's re-writing of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes might have been more persuasive, but I didn't think of it until recently.