Twenty years ago, the U.S. Catholic bishops lamented that we are the first generation since Genesis with the power to virtually destroy God's creation.

The bishops were thinking then of nuclear destruction, immediate and total. Today, we chip away at life a little at a time.

Death by abortion remains acceptable in all 50 states. Death by a doctor's assistance is legal in Oregon; other states might follow. Death by euthanasia teeters on the threshold but in fact is not uncommon. Euthanasia comes from the Greek meaning “good death.” It is embraced by some in our society as a tender approach, a merciful end to the life of another person.

Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor once commented: “In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness.” That often seems to be our societal approach: It makes us feel good and may seem kind. But what we do to old pets in kindness is not what we ought to do to our elderly parents, spouses and children.

Whether destroying human life by starvation, a gentle injection in the arm or a bullet through the head, the act delivers death to an innocent person. One might argue that the quick bullet is more compassionate than days-long starving. Yet few propose that.

Such is the case with Terri Schiavo, who is not comatose, not unresponsive and whose bright face touches the hearts of all. Yet the question that swirls around her is: Should her feeding tube be removed?

The most common on-camera answer is Yes. That's a compassionate way to end the limited potential of her life. We live in an era of fleeting media moments in which cultural values favor “tenderness” and efficiency over morality. A recent I Register letter to I the editor asks: “Do we know for sure that God wants us to keep Terri alive artificially?”

A revealing comment. Food is not “artificial” nor is it “extraordinary means.” Food via breast, bottle, knife and fork, blender or intravenous tube is essential to maintain human life in any of its various stages. By withdrawing food, we knowingly kill the person by a continuous direct act of prolonged starvation. Painful, cruel and more than a week long, this smacks of torture.

We are likewise aware of the horror charged against a New Jersey couple for slowly starving their young sons. None of us supports withholding food from those boys, but some of us seem inclined to starve the helpless Terri who cannot make midnight visits to scrounge food from neighbors' garbage.

The old pro-abortion argument about “viability” again comes into play. Is it okay to kill Terri because she cannot tend to herself? If so, may we kill a 9-month-old fetus? Or a 1-year-old infant? Or, God forbid, Christopher Reeve?

The Church teaches that a family may decide to remove extraordinary measures, such as a respirator, but we may almost never withhold food, which is necessary and ordinary in nearly every instance.

The difference? A respirator is a machine that takes over the breathing process for the patient. That machine will continue to breathe in and out until its parts wear out or it is disconnected.

Food, however, is not extraordinary. The patient fed by mouth or intravenously ingests that food and digests it on her own within her system.

Unlike the respirator, which replaces her own breathing, food is not digested for her; she does that. Only the method of feeding differs, as it does for a helpless child at the breast or on the bottle or on IV.

A few miles from my home, a similar national deathwatch occurred years ago when Karen Ann Quinlan, in a comatose state, was by family decision removed from a respirator. But Quinlan's feeding tube was not removed.

Her family did not in conscience allow that.

Karen Quinlan lived nine more years without extraordinary means. God did not take her until nine years later when she died from pneumonia, not starvation. Her family endured the agony of seeing her helpless for so long, yet they lovingly allowed God, not the media, to determine when he would bring Karen home.

It might be wise for each of us living in today's advanced technological society to ensure that we have a legally prepared living will that states how we as individuals might avoid potential future crises such as the families of Terri Schiavo and Karen Quinlan had to face.

The will records the person's written desire concerning extraordinary means. The bishops of the United States have designed such a living will that is compassionate, loving, legal and within the teachings of our Catholic Church.

Now, while strong, we should each consider talking to a priest and an attorney to protect ourselves and loved ones from a problem that might someday face us.

Drew DeCoursey, author of Lifting the Veil of Choice (OSV, 1992), writes from Morristown, New Jersey.