Illinois Right to Life Committee
Spring/Summer 2004 IRLC News
Pope John Paul II Declares
Pope John Paul II stated that the removal of feeding tubes from people in vegetative states is immoral, and that no judgment on their quality of life could justify such "euthanasia by omission." John Paul made the comments to participants at a March, 2004 Vatican conference on the ethical dilemmas of dealing with incapacitated patients. The Pope said even the medical terminology used to describe people in so-called "persistent vegetative states" was degrading to them. He said no matter how sick a person was, "he is and will always be a man, never becoming a vegetable or animal."
Providing food and water to such patients should be considered natural, ordinary and proportional care not artificial medical intervention, the Pope told members of the conference, which was organized by the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and the Pontifical Academy for Life, a Vatican advisory body. "As such, it is morally obligatory," to continue such care, he said.
Since no one knows when a patient in a vegetative state might awaken, "the evaluation of the probability, founded on scarce hope of recovery after the vegetative state has lasted for more than a year, cannot ethically justify the abandonment or the interruption of minimal care for the patient, including food and water," he said. Similarly, he said that someone else's evaluation of the patient's quality of life in such a state couldn't justify letting them die of hunger or thirst. "If this is knowingly and deliberately carried out, this would result in a true euthanasia by omission," he said.
The issue over removing feeding tubes has prompted several court cases and legislation in the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Terri Schiavo in Tampa, FL represents the most prominent ongoing case involving attempts by her husband to have her feeding tube removed so she will die. John Paul's statements must be very welcome news to Terri's parents who have fought to defend her right to live. In his comments, John Paul said families of such ill people needed more emotional and economic support, so that they can better care for their loved ones. In addition, he said, society should commit more money to find cures for them.
Medical ethicists are now reacting to John Paul's edict. They are admitting that they considered feeding tubes "medical treatment" that could be removed at the discretion of family members or caregivers. They even indicated that they supported withdrawing Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. One ethicist is quoted as saying, "The Pope's directive is a stunner, to say the least." We can only hope that the medical profession will be stunned into respecting and protecting human life at all stages.
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