WASHINGTON. — Theresa Ann Campo Pearson died last week in Coral Springs, Florida. She was only 10 days old. She had a name and she had a purpose for living, even though some said she could never enjoy a ''meaningful life.''
Theresa Ann was born with a partially formed brain stem. The brain stem controls breathing and heartbeat. She had no brain cortex, which is the largest part of the brain. Her body organs were fully formed and functioning, but infants in her condition are given no chance of survival.
Her parents wanted to donate their daughter's organs so that other infants with a better chance at life might benefit. Their motives appear to have been honorable. A Florida court held that state law prohibited doctors from taking the organs prior to cessation of brain-stem function. When Theresa Ann died, the organs, save for her corneas, had deteriorated and were no longer useful for transplantation.
In the days between her birth and death, there were the usual public debates involving issues of life and death, personhood and abortion rights.
Theresa Ann forced us to think again about the definition of ''meaningful life.'' Our modern concept includes having the ability to go to school, get a job, make money, buy stuff and not be a burden to anyone.
But there is another view that has been with us longer, one that defines ''meaningful'' in terms of the one who gives life and, with the gift, its true meaning.
Just as a book is defined by its author -- not its reader, who is powerless to shape plot or characters -- shouldn't a life, then, be defined by its Author?
On CNN last week, a writer for Reason magazine said that Theresa Ann ''is not even human.'' What was she, then, a cat? A plant? A car? This is the direction we take when we decide which life is meaningful and which is not.
My life will always be more meaningful to me than to anyone else. Unless the laws of the state value human life more highly than they do convenience, lives that become burdensome to some can be snuffed out, and medicine and law are transformed from our advocates into our enemies.
In a culture that places human life and human dignity above all other things, hard cases like Theresa Ann's can be dealt with humanely and in accordance with traditional norms.
But this culture no longer places such a high value on human life, and every challenge to traditional norms erodes what was once a sure foundation. It is why debates shift from developing babies in the womb to ''gag rules.'' In fact, it is why the debate has shifted from what a woman ought to be told about the nature of the life within her to abortion options at federally funded clinics.
Medicine, law and philosophy must have a base for human dignity or humans become nothing more special than other living things. Indeed, this is precisely what has happened in this half of the 20th century: A God-centered worldview that acknowledged the Creator as the Author of life has been supplanted by a materialistic humanism in which the grossest forms of inhumanity have not only been allowed but promoted.
This humanistic materialism says the only knowledge man can discover is that which begins with himself and connects to nothing outside of his observable universe. This philosophy has been imposed at universities, in law and medical schools and in the communication industry, including news and entertainment.
Woody Allen is a cultural prophet for this view. In the film ''Annie Hall,'' Mr. Allen's character summed up his view of life this way: ''Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable.''
The humanist H.J. Blackham took a more scholarly approach when he wrote in 1967, ''Life leads to nothing, and every pretense that it does not is a deceit.'' Writing two years earlier in ''The Identity of Man,'' Jacob Bronowski said, ''Man is a part of nature, in the same sense that a stone is, or a camel.''
According to this philosophy, man is complex, but not unique, and people should feel free to use human beings in any way they wish to attain their personal, short-term objectives. That such a course might not serve the long-term interests of humanity is of no concern to those making such decisions.
If Theresa Ann had been allowed by the Florida court to be harvested like wheat for her organs, the precedent would have been terrible for other, less severely impaired infants -- who would simply wait for someone to decide their lives are not meaningful. That's the message Theresa Ann taught us.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.