Missouri Baptist bioethicist finds unlikely ally
By Allen Palmeri
May 11, 2004
JEFFERSON CITY – Cindy Province , a member of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Executive Board and a trustee at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., would disagree with Pope John Paul II on several theological issues, but they share a mutual love for the “very severely physically disabled.”
Province, a nurse, went to Rome to participate with about 200 neurologists, social workers, psychologists, nurses, occupational therapists and physical therapists in a conference on the Persistent Vegetative State (PVS). On March 20, the group heard the pope deliver a lengthy statement on the medical treatment of PVS patients. Province was delighted with what she heard.
“The pope said we can’t (morally) withhold food and water,” Province said. “He also said a human being can never become a vegetable or an animal. A human being is always going to be a human being.”
Province, a leader in the conservative resurgence in Missouri Baptist life, agrees with John Paul II, a conservative Roman Catholic, on his definition of personhood. The 83-year-old pontiff, in a very weak voice according to Province, told the group that PVS patients “retain their human dignity in all its fullness.” Province was encouraged that the pope continues to reject the man-centered view that a person’s functions are what make them a person, and when those functions diminish, the person diminishes as well.
“I believe the biblical view,” Province said. “Human beings are persons, and a person is something that’s part of the essence of a person. It isn’t some function. The functions of a pre-born infant are very different than the functions of an adult in mid-life like me, and yet we’re both persons. So function can’t determine personhood.”
A PVS patient is someone who has suffered an injury to the upper part of the brain and is awake but is thought to be unaware. Province, who is pursuing her master’s degree through Trinity Evangelical Divinity School , Deerfield , Ill. , came to Rome to present a paper on the syndrome. She proposes that it be renamed “Severe Cortical Impairment,” so as to give it more dignity.
Province said society has traveled down a slippery slope where the removal of food and water from these patients as “medical treatment” has become routine. Other countries require a judge to authorize such killing, commonly called euthanasia. In the United States , a judge need not be involved.
“A lot of these people may have said, when they were healthy, they would never want to live that way, but they’re not on the outside looking in anymore,” Province said. “What we do know about them is that most of them want to live. Even in this very reduced, very vulnerable state that they’re in, they don’t necessarily feel their quality of life is equal to an able-bodied person, but they don’t feel that it’s zero either. They want to try to enjoy what they have remaining.
“There’s a real question about whether these folks are adequately protected. What I learned at the conference is that up to 40 percent of these patients are misdiagnosed.”
Science has a problem with PVS patients, Province said, in that while they are thought to be unaware, there is no medical way to measure awareness. What if patients are aware but unable to express it?
“We need to end this gloom-and-doom view of very severe brain injury and we need to develop a redemptive, hopeful view where we as Christians come alongside the very severely disabled and give them the care that they deserve as human beings created in the image of God,” Province said.
“I really liken it to the Samaritan who came upon the man who had fallen among robbers. Unlike the people who passed before him, he did not assume that the person was dead. He took the time to discern that this person was alive and was worthy of care. So he gave him the care that he needed. I assume that the Samaritan didn’t really know if this person would recover or not, because it wasn’t really up to him, was it? He was just providing the care.”
Province said she was encouraged by the Pope’s stance on the issue and the conference, hosted by the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, in general.
“Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition of a ‘vegetative state’ retain their human dignity in all its fullness,” Pope John Paul told those attending the conference. “The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help.”
Or, as Province put it: “What greater example of Christian charity or care could you possibly show than caring for a person who not only can’t express gratitude but who may not even be aware of your presence?”