George Washington, the father of our country, had taphophobia, fear of graves. When dying in 1799 he recalled several newspaper reports of men thought to be dead who were buried alive. He told his secretary not to bury him until at least three days after his death.
Wikipedia states, "Before the advent of modern medicine, the fear was not entirely irrational. Throughout history, there have been numerous cases of people being accidentally buried alive." Legends tell of coffins opened for some reason and corpses found with hands raised and palms turned upwards. In past centuries some among the wealthy purchased "safety coffins" with breathing tubes and ropes attached to external bells: Someone mostly dead could signal outsiders that life remained.
But nothing so macabre could happen in these days of "modern medicine," right? Hmm-what about being one of perhaps thousands of patients who, according to neuroscientist Adrian M. Owen, "are totally unable to perform functions with their bodies-even blink an eye or move an eyebrow-but yet are entirely conscious"?
How about being stuck in a hospital bed with your breathing tube for years, able to hear conversations-including those of people wishing you were dead-yet unable to ring a bell or indicate in any way that you're conscious? Wait a minute, you might be saying: Are you resurrecting the debate about Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a "persistent vegetative state" who died five years ago after becoming the subject of national debate and congressional intervention?
Who is neuroscientist Owen and who takes him seriously? Well, the University of Cambridge, where he works, does. The New England Journal of Medicine, which published his article, does. Even The Washington Post does, as its lengthy Feb. 3 article-under a headline, "Tests show brain activity from those in 'vegetative state'"-indicated.
Owen and technicians placed patients inside advanced brain scanners and gave them careful instructions: Imagine you are playing tennis. Imagine you are exploring your home, room by room. The scanner showed no action in the brains of most patients, but for others the scans flashed like those of a healthy conscious person: The minds of these supposed vegetables were alive. One patient could answer detailed yes-and-no questions about his life before entering the hospital.
Owen's summary: "It was incredible. These are patients who are totally unable to perform functions with their bodies-even blink an eye or move an eyebrow-but yet are entirely conscious. It's quite distressing, really, to realize this." Quite distressing, yes, but also breathtaking: As Psalm 139 teaches, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We should not give up on what God has knit together.
That brings me to the other president sometimes remembered in February, Abraham Lincoln. Toward the end of this life he apparently believed that God had knit together the United States, and he was not willing to accept the unraveling of that union. In that way he differed sharply from John Brown, whose goal was to bring on the Civil War: That's why Brown's band of terrorists slashed to death five pro-slavery men in Kansas in 1856 and tried to start a rebellion at Harper's Ferry in 1859.
Two decades ago I discussed slavery and abortion with Randall Terry, then head of Operation Rescue and later a spokesman for Terri Schiavo's family. Terry acknowledged his desire to be a new John Brown leading America to a new Civil War. I mention this because Christian Newswire, a distributor of press releases, was smoking after a jury on Jan. 29 found a pro-lifer guilty of murdering Kansas abortionist George Tiller. Terry emphasized Tiller's taking of innocent blood. Other pro-lifers said Terry was justifying the murder of Tiller.
Look, for numerous reasons we should not and will not have an abortion civil war or even tit-for-tat skirmishes, with pro-lifers and pro-aborts increasingly shooting each other. One reason: God is providing many alternatives to violence. Support for abortion is unraveling. Ultrasounds now show a mom and dad what their unborn child looks like. Owen's research will make more people reluctant to end the lives of those in vegetative states.
As previously silent stones cry out, let us proceed, as Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, "With malice toward none, with charity for all." That includes the preborn, the apparently unconscious, and the spiritually unconscious-for now.
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