The hour approaches, indeed is almost upon us, when Terri Schiavo’s martyrdom will enter a new phase. Tomorrow, Oct. 15, she is slated to begin her slow, forced starvation and dehydration, one to two weeks of court-sanctioned torture.

The term “martyr” is chosen very carefully. The word martyr comes straight from the Greek word martur, which means “to be a witness.” The word is most famously associated with the early Christians who chose to be slain by the pagan Roman government rather than give up their cherished faith.

Whether Terri Schiavo is saved at the last hour or turned over to the clutching hands of those who so hungrily desire her death, she will still be a witness. As should be clear from the Christian faith of her parents, those who are fighting to keep her alive believe most passionately that life is sacred. Those who desire her death (such as her own husband, Michael Schiavo) just as passionately believe that life is not worth living if it is less than perfect – especially not worth living if it places a burden on others.

Terri represents, in her very person, the struggle between these two rival, irreconcilable views of human life. To this great struggle, Terri Schiavo brings the witness of her delicate life, a witness that raises to public view the plight of so many others whose lives have been extinguished with no other witnesses than those who wished them dead.

In order to understand what is really at stake in the Schiavo case, we need to understand the scope of the real struggle. This is not merely a local disagreement about a single moral issue, but rather, part of a far larger war presently tearing apart much of the social fabric of the West. We are witnessing, in the life-and-death struggle of Terri Schiavo, the life-and-death struggle of a civilization that was historically defined by the moral understanding of Christianity.

Was? Yes. Christian civilization is being replaced, slowly but surely, by a rival civilization based on entirely different principles, a civilization that can only live if Christian civilization dies. The two cannot coincide, except in conflict, and since a civilization (let alone a mere house) divided against itself cannot stand, one side shall win and the other side shall be extinguished. Whether or not Terri Schiavo will be a casualty in this war, she is certainly a witness to it.

What, then, is the source of this other, rival civilization? To get to the core of it, the new civilization is based on the belief that human life is no different from animal life, and that just like other animals, human beings have only one life to live, and should be able to do it with the most pleasure and least pain possible. In short, it rejects the Christian view (shared by Judaism, Islam and others), that human beings are fundamentally distinct from animals because human beings are made in the image of God. According to this view, since human beings are animals, we should apply to human beings the same moral standards as we apply to animals.

Thus, if we can clone animals, then we can clone human beings; if we can put down old, infirm, deformed and damaged animals, then we can put down old, infirm, deformed and damaged human beings. Such compassion makes no distinction, because it has given up the most fundamental distinction, that human life is fundamentally different from mere animal life. I call this view “moral Darwinism,” but it can also be called “secularism” or “materialism.”

It is not very difficult to see how easily this view plays into the reasoning of those who wish to deprive Terri Schiavo of her life. If a pet has lost some significant portion of its normal functioning capacities and would be a burden to the owner, then we consider it his right to put the pet, even if it is not in that much pain or might recover with therapy, out of his misery. For the right-to-die folks, Terri has become an “it,” which he, Michael Schiavo, should have a right to remove.

That is not to say that the right-to-die camp is utterly heartless, completely devoid of compassion. The problem is that it is the same kind of compassion as we would apply to the case if Terri Schiavo were merely an animal that suffered from the same physical debilitations. And of course, if Terri Schiavo were merely an animal, then they would be right, and their compassion well-directed.

But if, according to her faith and the faith of her parents, she has, still animating her frail body, an immortal soul defining her as being made in the image of God, then her life is sacred. Then her enforced dehydration and starvation will be a very cruel and long-calculated act of murder.

Act of compassion or cold murder? How we define it will determine the fate of our civilization. Terri Schiavo is a witness to that great battle.

Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the philosophy and history of science at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and a senior fellow at Discovery Institute. He is also the author of “Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists.”

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