Feeding The Dead? Rethinking Robert Rakestraw On The Persistent Vegetative State -- By: Erik M. Clary

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 58:4 (Dec 2015)
Article: Feeding The Dead? Rethinking Robert Rakestraw On The Persistent Vegetative State
Author: Erik M. Clary


Feeding The Dead? Rethinking Robert Rakestraw On The Persistent Vegetative State

Erik M. Clary*

* Erik Clary is a Ph.D. candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 120 S. Wingate St., Wake Forest, NC 27587. A version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the ETS in San Diego, CA, November 19, 2014.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman whose plight ignited an intense national debate over the practice of withholding artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) from individuals diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). According to public opinion surveys that stretch back to the early 1990s, the majority of evangelical Christians are opposed to indefinite ANH in the case of PVS.1 Few have been willing to publicly stake that position to the claim frequently advanced by secular ethicists that patients deemed persistently vegetative are, in fact, dead. Among those who have, however, is Robert V. Rakestraw, who, in a 1992 JETS essay that continues to be reprinted in his widely used introductory text on Christian ethics, argued that vegetative patients are “theologically dead” on account of a “completely and permanently destroyed” cerebral cortex.2

Though advocating a “major redefinition of death” with significant theological and ethical implications, Rakestraw’s essay surprisingly garnered no response in JETS. Indeed, one has to search far and wide for an engagement of his proposal. Biola ethicist Scott Rae cites Rakestraw’s proposal in multiple publications, but the engagement is brief as Rae is chiefly focused in those efforts to deliver a philosophical critique against the larger target of personhood bioethics.3 More substantial is

the interaction from Dónal O’Mathúna in a 1996 essay published in Philosophia Christi.4 O’Mathúna’s critique was chiefly theological, but he also raised in barebones fashion a separate objection that, more fully developed, proves devastating to Rakestraw’s argument. Specifically, it is the challenge of empirical warrant, and in this essay, we shall develop the objection, arguing that in constructing his ethical analysis, Rakestraw relied upon a severely flawed analysis of the medical data—judged both by sources available at the time of his writing and by more recent research. The conclusions reached are significant for any approach to the ANH-PVS question that grants decisive influen...

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