Madrid, Spain, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) -
Police removed a group of 15 Spanish Right to Life advocates gathered outside the Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid, the site where the European Human Rights Commission was conducting a meeting.
The pro-life protestors were carrying signs reading, “What about my rights?” alongside pictures of a baby at 13 weeks of gestation. Police forced them to leave the area outside the building where the meeting was taking place.
The president of the watchdog organization “HazteOir.org,” Ignacio Arsuaga, said the police humiliated the group of peaceful protestors, “solely because they were showing the European ministers how (Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero) treats the right to life in Spain.”
President Zapatero has given support to laws permitting abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy.
Arsuaga also urged pro-lifers to participate in the March for Life that will take place March 7 in hundreds of cities across Spain.
Washington D.C., Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - The Montgomery County Council in Maryland on Tuesday voted to require pregnancy counseling centers to post a disclaimer saying they do not have medical professionals on staff. Pro-life advocates said the centers are being unfairly targeted because they do not provide abortion or contraception.
The county council approved the new regulation by a 7-2 vote. The rule also requires centers to post notices encouraging women to consult a licensed health care provider.
Backers of the proposal said it was intended to address “misleading information from opponents of abortion rights,” the Washington Post reports.
The Archdiocese of Washington, which supports four pregnancy centers in the county, charged that the proposal “unfairly targets” pregnancy resource centers, saying they provide a “valuable safety net” of material support and referrals, but not medical care, for pregnant women in need.
“This regulation is unnecessary,” archdiocese’s director of life issues, Christa Lopiccolo. “The fact is local pregnancy resource centers provide indispensable and compassionate practical support for women. They are an important resource.”
The centers provide “critical support” for pregnant women and their children at a vulnerable time, she added.
Lopiccolo reported that no complaints have been filed with the county against the centers and no documentation has proven the need for new regulation.
“Rather, this is part of a national effort to undermine the centers’ good work solely because of their beliefs,” she charged.
The regulation is similar to a bill defeated in committee in the Maryland General Assembly in 2008. Similar regulations have been proposed in Virginia and Washington state.
According to the archdiocese, the regulation in practice applies only to centers with a pro-life mission. These centers already encourage women to receive prenatal care.
In a January statement the Catholic bishops of Maryland said the regulations are “particularly abhorrent” because they mandate speech only for pro-life centers “in complete disregard of the respected and valuable assistance pregnant women receive from them.”
“The message these proposals send is disturbing: Failure to provide abortion or contraception, even when based on deeply-held moral beliefs, is an activity that merits regulation and, if necessary, punishment.”
Madison, Wis., Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - Rosary for the Bishop, an online prayer campaign for Catholic bishops, has launched a new website to enroll participants and help remind them to pray.
The site, www.RosaryForTheBishop.org, opened on January 1, 2010.
The campaign was begun during Christmas of 2005 as a gift for Bishop of Madison, Wisconsin Robert Morlino. The year 2005 was difficult for the prelate, whose cathedral was destroyed by arson that year.
"We thought the good Bishop could use some prayers and encouragement," said Syte Reitz, a Madison-area Catholic.
Reitz collected about 30 prayer pledges from friends at an October meeting of the Madison Catholic Women’s Club. The pledges were presented to Bishop Morlino in a Christmas card thanking him for his work.
Reitz’s son Tom, a computer student, offered to make a website where people could sign up online. He had just begun to learn about the power of the internet as an “evangelization tool.”
The website attracted over 150 participants by Christmas 2005. By Christmas 2008 the campaign had over 300 participants from about 50 parishes throughout the diocese.
"This year, we wanted to make another Rosary for the Bishop campaign for Bishop Walker Nickless of the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa. We quickly realized that with only a bit of additional work, we could make Rosary for the Bishop available for all US bishops,” Tom Reitz reported.
His web development company now oversees the website.
Rosary for the Bishop was inspired by a passage from Exodus 17, which tells how Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands during battle.
“We need to support our Bishops' hands so that they do not weary in the battle for the faith. Many Catholics pray the Rosary every day. Why not pray one for our bishops?” Syte Reitz suggested. “They are our shepherds, and their job is not easy. They need and deserve our prayers."
Speaking to CNA in a Wednesday e-mail, Reitz said that the bishops have a difficult job of teaching “the unpopular truth of Jesus Christ.”
“As Catholics, it is our responsibility to obey and support our shepherds. One of the best ways to support a Bishop is to pray for him, and that's the goal of Rosary for the Bishop. We took the effort online in order to reach the many Internet users around the country, especially young people.”
Response to the effort has been “tremendous,” he reported, with over 400 people now praying for 68 bishops. Several bishops have also expressed their appreciation for the site.
“I think we Catholics need to be unafraid to explore and new technologies like the Web, and to use them to further Christ's work on Earth,” Reitz told CNA.
Participants can sign up for the campaign at http://www.RosaryForTheBishop.org/join.
Washington D.C., Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - Harry Knox, a member of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has stood by his past comment that Pope Benedict XVI is “hurting people in the name of Jesus.”
Knox, a former licensed minister of the United Methodist Church and a leader with the homosexual activist group Human Rights Campaign (HRC), originally made his comments in March 2009 in response to Pope Benedict’s comments about the effectiveness of condoms in fighting AIDS in Africa.
“The Pope’s statement that condoms don't help control the spread of HIV, but rather condoms increase infection rates, is hurting people in the name of Jesus,” Knox had said in a HRC statement. “On a continent where millions of people are infected with HIV, it is morally reprehensible to spread such blatant falsehoods.”
CNSNews.com spoke with Knox at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Asked if he stood by his comments, he said “I do.”
Asked about Harvard AIDS prevention researcher Dr. Edward Green’s claim that the Pope was correct, Knox said Dr. Green was “simply incorrect.”
“All the other evidence of science shows otherwise.”
In March 2009, Dr. Green told CNA that researchers cannot find an association between more condom use and lower HIV rates. He has also written that programs to increase fidelity in relationships and to reduce the number of sex partners are effective.
Previously, Knox has described Pope Benedict XVI and certain Catholic bishops as “discredited leaders” because of their opposition to same-sex “marriage.”
Though acknowledging the Knights of Columbus’ “good works," he also called the Catholic fraternal order’s members “foot soldiers of a discredited army of oppression” because of the organization’s support for the successful California ballot measure Proposition 8. That 2008 measure restored the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Burlington, Vt., Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - The Diocese of Burlington is selling its headquarters and other church properties in hopes of securing funds to settle two dozen pending sex abuse cases before they go to trial.
Chittenden Superior Court Judge Helen Toor has called for one trial to resolve all remaining civil cases related to the former priest Edward Paquette, who worked in the diocese in the 1970s.
According to the Rutland Herald, three past juries have ruled that the diocese was negligent in hiring and supervising the retired priest. One jury issued a record $8.7 million verdict in May 2008, another issued a nearly $3.6 million verdict in December 2008 and a third issued a $2.2 million verdict in October 2009.
Three other cases involve former priest Alfred Willis and there are four other separate trials on unrelated misconduct lawsuits.
Judge Toor has urged the lawyers in the case to try to settle all remaining cases through mediation before an April hearing.
On Tuesday attorneys said they had agreed to settle a Vermont Supreme Court appeal of the $8.7 million verdict in the case of former Burlington altar boy Perry Babel.
Church counsel Thomas McCormick said the amount of the settlement was to be kept confidential.
“It is the hope of the diocese that further cases will be resolved in a just and charitable manner," he commented to the Rutland Herald.
To settle the expenses, the diocese has announced it will sell its former Camp Holy Cross in Colchester and a 32-acre Burlington headquarters overlooking Lake Champlain. The latter is an historic property valued at $6 million.
"The diocese hopes the money will generate enough proceeds to settle all these cases," McCormick explained.
The headquarters houses the offices of Bishop Salvatore Matano and most of its statewide clerical and charitable programs. Their new location has not been decided upon.
There are about 118,000 Catholics in the diocese.
Vatican City, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - In a letter to the Archbishop of Vancouver, the Holy Father expressed his happiness for the occasion of the 21st Winter Olympic Games and the 10th Paralympic Winter Games to be celebrated between February and March.
The Pope noted the importance of the event for everyone involved and recalled the words of John Paul II, who said that sport "can make an effective contribution to peaceful understanding between people and to establishing the new civilization of love."
With those words in mind, Pope Benedict added, "may sport always be a valued building block of peace and friendship between people and nations."
The Holy Father also referred to the "More Than Gold" initiative in his message and prayed that all those who make use of the spiritual and material assistance the effort provides for the games "will be confirmed in their love of God and neighbor."
According to an article on the "More Than Gold" website, Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver lent his support to this ecumenical initiative, which he said offers "a united outreach during this once-in-a-lifetime experience."
"We join with others to speak in one voice and offer services in the spirit of social justice and loving Christian witness," he said, as he defined the strategy of their work to provide "radical hospitality" during the games including homestays, prayer and social initiatives for the duration of the Games.
Pope Benedict ended his message with the traditional apostolic blessing upon everyone associated with the Olympic Games.
Vatican City, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - Today Pope Benedict XVI made public his Lenten message for 2010 emphasizing “divine justice” which, he noted, “is profoundly different from it's human counterpart.” In his reflection, the Pontiff touched on the fact that modern man has a tendency to focus on alleviating external concerns regarding injustice yet often fails to look internally, where the origin of injustice lies.
The Holy Father began his message on the common, human usage of the term “justice” saying that it is generally defined as every person receiving what is “due” to them.
“In reality, however, this classical definition does not specify what 'due' is to be rendered to each person,” explained the Pope. “What man needs most cannot be guaranteed to him by law. In order to live life to the full, something more intimate is necessary that can be granted only as a gift: we could say that man lives by that love which only God can communicate since He created the human person in His image and likeness.”
“Material goods are certainly useful and required - indeed Jesus Himself was concerned to heal the sick, feed the crowds that followed Him and surely condemns the indifference that even today forces hundreds of millions into death through lack of food, water and medicine - yet 'distributive' justice does not render to the human being the totality of his 'due,'” Pope Benedict added.
“Just as man needs bread, so does man have even more need of God.”
The Pope also spoke on the roots of injustice and noted that man often mistakenly believes that it originates outside of him, as something that needs to be dealt with externally. “Many modern ideologies deep down have this presupposition: since injustice comes 'from outside,' in order for justice to reign, it is sufficient to remove the exterior causes that prevent it being achieved.”
“This way of thinking - Jesus warns - is ingenuous and short-sighted,” Pope Benedict cautioned. “Injustice, the fruit of evil, does not have exclusively external roots; its origin lies in the human heart, where the seeds are found of a mysterious co-operation with evil.”
“In order to enter into justice, it is thus necessary to leave that illusion of self-sufficiency, the profound state of closure, which is the very origin of injustice.”
The Holy Father continued to say that the “Christian good news responds positively to man's thirst for justice” but not by human means or understanding. “What then is the justice of Christ? Above all, it is the justice that comes from grace, where it is not man who makes amends, heals himself and others.”
“God has paid for us the price of the exchange in His Son, a price that is truly exorbitant,” explained Pope Benedict. “Before the justice of the Cross, man may rebel for this reveals how man is not a self-sufficient being, but in need of Another in order to realize himself fully.”
“Conversion to Christ, believing in the Gospel, ultimately means this,” he continued, “to exit the illusion of self-sufficiency in order to discover and accept one's own need - the need of others and God, the need of His forgiveness and His friendship.”
“Dear brothers and sisters, Lent culminates in the Paschal Triduum, in which this year, too, we shall celebrate divine justice - the fullness of charity, gift, salvation,” the Holy Father concluded. “May this penitential season be for every Christian a time of authentic conversion and intense knowledge of the mystery of Christ, who came to fulfill every justice. With these sentiments, I cordially impart to all of you my apostolic blessing.”
Rome, Italy, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - Meeting with Pope Benedict XVI after Wednesday's General Audience, Bishop Pierre-Andre Dumas of Anse-a-Veau and the Director of Caritas Haiti, said that despite the tragedy that struck the country last month, Haitians remain hopeful “that tomorrow can be better than the past.”
During the emotional meeting, Bishop Dumas said, “The pillar upon which Haiti must be rebuilt is the dignity of the person, which must prevail over every other interest. We now have the opportunity to put a new face on our country based on justice, gratitude and solidarity.”
After thanking the Holy Father for his “immediate support through prayer and charity,” Bishop Dumas, who lost a two year-old niece and other family members in the January 12 earthquake, remarked: “All of our families have been impacted, but it moves me to see that despite the tragedy, Haiti has hope that tomorrow can be better than the past.”
The bishop added that there “is also a spiritual renewal. Losing everything has brought us to what is essential, and thus, to the transcendent dimension. The Church will continue to do what is possible for and with the people who are living an experience of unity in suffering,” he said.
“We wonder what the future of Haiti will be. It is a question that causes anxiety as we move from the emergency to reconstruction,” the bishop said. “The urgency now is finding homes and food for so many who have nothing. But now is the time to plan a just reconstruction, as long as the spotlight is on us. In other words, when the international aid unavoidably diminishes, reconstruction will become more difficult.”
“For this reason,” he continued, “we are looking for dioceses to partner up with. I think dioceses in the U.S. and Germany could help us reconstruct churches and send us teams of architects quickly.”
For the bishops of Haiti, the new churches will be signs of hope for rebirth,” not solely for Christians, but “for non-believers as well," he said.
San José, Costa Rica, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - Costa Rican presidential candidate Laura Chinchilla said this week she is opposed to the legalization of abortion and same-sex “marriage.”
Speaking to Catholic and evangelical reporters, Chinchilla described her vision as one for life. “I don’t understand how parents can teach their children to respect animals and plants but are willing to sacrifice human life,” she said.
She added that she intends to call on party leaders to oppose bills that would legalize abortion.
Chinchilla turned to same-sex “marriage” saying that while she is concerned that homosexual persons feel discriminated against, “we must see how we can bring about improvement” without altering the definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman.
Chinchilla also remarked that she is opposed to efforts to remove the word “God” from the Costa Rican constitution.
Madrid, Spain, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - The president of Spain’s House of Representatives, Jose Bono, a self-described Catholic socialist, criticized the country’s bishops this week for being “judges” and “professors of dogma,” following their statement that politicians who support abortion cannot receive Communion.
In an interview with the left-wing magazine “Vida Nueva,” Bono said, “The opinions of those who would rather see me outside the Church, excommunicated, condemned as a heretic or militant atheist are of no interest to me.” The Spanish bishops should act “more like shepherds and less like judges and professors of dogma,” he said.
“It would be dangerous for the Spanish Church to make someone who doesn’t share the opinions of a certain cardinal or bishop - no matter how much power they have - feel uncomfortable or to point fingers at them,” Bono said. “I hope they let me live in a Church in which the principal commandment is that of love, forgiveness, or fraternity, and not that of fear.”
In response to statements by the general secretary of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, who said that those who vote to support abortion cannot receive Communion, Bono said, “I will avoid going to places where I am not wanted in order to avoid scandal, but thanks be to the God, the Church is very broad, very universal and very large.”
He added that Christians in the Socialist Party want to be “consistent and not hide our religious sentiments because we believe that one of the best ways to renew socialism can come from the Christian principals of the Gospel.”
London, England, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - During his address to the bishops of England and Wales this week, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed that he will be making a visit to the United Kingdom this coming Fall. In preparation for his arrival, a panel of Catholic experts will provide the media and others with briefings on what the Church teaches.
The Catholic Union of Great Britain reports that it is organizing a panel of Catholic experts to "articulate the conviction of the Church on major contentious issues" in preparation for the Holy Father's visit, which will take place next Fall.
The "well-informed Catholic speakers," who are currently being sought, will be available as of March 2010 for media queries and provide a presence in the public square and give "expert briefings" on the teachings of the Catholic Church. According to the Catholic Union, 20-25 representatives "drawn from a broad spectrum of the Church" will form the team.
The Catholic Union of Great Britain, by its mission, advocates and upholds the moral and spiritual interests of the Church and works to further Christian views in the public sphere, without regard to politics or affiliation.
The Catholic Union has declared that the "Catholic Voices" project has been approved by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, although they are not spokespeople for the conference.
Vatican City, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - The book "The Difference God Makes: a Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture" by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was analyzed in the most recent edition of the Vatican's newspaper. The cardinal's collection of writings was dubbed a "clear, concrete and stimulating" description of the current situation of the Church within the American culture.
L'Osservatore Romano (LOR) commends the cardinal's ability to "articulate the Catholic identity, defining the possibilities and dangers of society and contemporary American culture" as well as his "renewed appeal to evangelization, to joyful sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ."
Between the three main sections of the book, which pertain to the mission, life and aim of the Church, Cardinal George offers Communion as the "fundamental reality" that unites the three areas in a "complete theological vision."
The cardinal, says the paper, "celebrates the source of Communion in the same life of the One and Triune God and his realization in the Church that, as the Body of Christ, is called to be sacrament of communion, and, thus, salvation for the world."
In addition to the parts of the book that touch on globalization and inter-religious relations, it offers two particularly provocative treatises on inter-ecclesial relations, LOR says. The first is "Spreading the Gospel in the American Terrain: the Contribution of Theology," in which he insists on the importance of the inculturation of the Gospel in order "to be faithful to our own incarnational roots."
The prelate also outlines the historical path to the present-day relegation of religion in American culture to the private life of the individual.
In the second treatise highlighted by the Vatican paper, "The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism," Cardinal George provides a definition of theologically, not politically, "liberal" Catholicism. He talks about the "creative" attempt of "liberal Catholics" to live in the contemporary culture, albeit "running the risk of progressively permitting the values of the culture to take priority over those of the Gospel" and thereby becoming "insipid."
LOR also highlights three theological principles "crucial" to Catholics' identity and which Cardinal George says are "in danger." He suggests that "objective divine revelation is limited to the confines of experience and subjective religious propension." He also notes that "Christology passes from being the confession of the Incarnate Son of God to admiration for the all too human proclaimer of the kingdom, (that is) from Jesus, Savior of humanity, to Jesus, Galilean prophet." Finally, the cardinal mentions that "the sacramental-ecclesial mediation cedes to the consumerist celebration of the individual preference and to the entirety of all who think in the same way."
The analysis concludes that Cardinal George seeks through his book to offer "indications for a renewed Catholic imagination, that is rich and, at the same time, demanding."
"The vision and the commitment of Cardinal George are profoundly relational, rooted... in the Eucharist and the ecclesial presence of He who is truly God and truly human: the kingdom of God in person."
Havana, Cuba, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - Thirty-three political prisoners in Cuba have sent a letter to South African leader Nelson Mandela informing him that they will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of his liberation “from behind bars.”
The letter was written by prisoner of conscience and leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, Antonio Ramon Diaz Sanchez, who was condemned to 20 years in prison. Despite serious obstacles, 32 other prisoners were able to sign the letter, which recalls that with the liberation of Mandela on February 11, 1990, the world “witnessed the beginning of a process of change.”
This change, they wrote, put an end to an irrational social order and to “the repugnant regime of Apartheid.”
“We and many other Cubans, and you and many of your fellow countrymen, understand the pain of being imprisoned solely for wanting to contribute...nothing more than equality of rights and responsibilities for all citizens,” the letter stated.
One month and one week “following your 20th anniversary of release from prison, we will mark the seventh year of our unjust captivity.” The prisoners explained they were arrested for urging peaceful change in Cuba and respect for human rights.
Similar to Mandela, the prisoners wrote, “we also are constantly accused of defending the interests and ideologies of foreign powers—an argument used to cover up political repression and justify long prison sentences.”
The Cuban prisoners expressed their solidarity with Mandela and sent their best wishes “to you and to all South Africans on this worldwide celebration of the 20th anniversary of the end of your captivity.”
The Christian Liberation Movement explained that only 33 prisoners could sign the letter because of communication difficulties. The movement then reaffirmed its “demand for the unconditional and immediate release of all Cuban political prisoners.”
Lander, Wyo., Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - A U.S. Catholic professor was recently awarded an audience with Pope Benedict XVI and an almost $30,000 prize for his doctoral thesis, which he wrote to help “unfold the beauty of Catholic teaching.”
John Mortenson, an Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College, received the award on Jan. 27 for his work titled “Understanding St. Thomas on Analogy.” The award was given to him by the Coordination Council of Pontifical Academies, a committee that was established by the late John Paul II in 1996.
“The prize for theology and St. Thomas is given every four years by the Pontifical Academies of Theology and St. Thomas Aquinas,” Mortensen explained to CNA. “My thesis director asked if I would like to submit the thesis, and I consented, and sent my CV and copies of the thesis to Rome.”
Reflecting on his personal faith and what led him to pursue his career as a Catholic professor, Mortensen said, “I was drawn to theology and to teaching through love. I wanted to grow in my Catholic faith, and studying theology and philosophy provided a richness to my spiritual and intellectual life that I had not thought possible.”
“When I first began to study Thomas Aquinas, I was amazed at the clarity and succinctness with which he presented Catholic doctrine,” he added. “I wanted to unfold the beauty of Catholic teaching present in Aquinas and present it to others.”
Mortensen outlined the purpose of his thesis and said that “The question of analogy is foundational for theology and philosophy. The way we speak about things and the way things exist can only be understood if one understands analogy.”
“My thesis aimed at clarifying a much-debated point in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas about the way he uses the word ‘analogy,’” Mortensen explained. “This clarification is important as a starting point in the whole question of analogy, since without getting this issue right, many errors and misunderstandings are bound to follow.”
When asked what his experience of meeting the Holy Father was like, Mortenson told CNA that “Pope Benedict was very warm and loving to us. He blessed each of our children, and spent time asking about our family.”
“We love him like a father, and we told him so.”
Paris, France, Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - Archbishop of Baltimore Edwin O’Brien on Wednesday reiterated the Catholic Church’s condemnation of “total war” and called for courage in efforts towards a future “free of the nuclear threat” at a summit aimed at the elimination of nuclear weapons.
His remarks came at the Global Zero Summit in Paris, which met from February 2-4, a press release from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) says. The attendees, who were political, military, business and religious leaders, numbered 200.
The archbishop cited the Second Vatican Council’s condemnation of total war in its Pastoral Constitution “Gaudium et Spes”:
“Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”
Archbishop O’Brien, who previously served as the Archbishop for the Military Services, also noted the Council Fathers were skeptical of arguments that nuclear weapons were necessary for “deterrence.”
He then quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 World Day of Peace message, in which the pontiff said that in a nuclear war “there would be no victors, only victims.”
A nuclear weapons-free world will not be easy to attain, the archbishop said.
“A world with zero nuclear weapons will need robust measures to monitor, enforce and verify compliance. The path to zero will be long and treacherous. But humanity must walk this path with both care and courage in order to build a future free of the nuclear threat.”
Other speakers at the summit included former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Queen Noor of Jordan. The summit was timed to lead up to the Global Nuclear Security Summit in April, convened after calls from President Obama and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.
St. Petersburg, Fla., Feb 4, 2010 (CNA) - Reacting to news of a breakthrough in brain scanning technology, Terri Schiavo's brother Bobby Schindler is calling for a halt to removing hydration from brain-damaged patients who are thought to be in a persistent vegetative state.
An “unscientific, inaccurate” diagnosis of unresponsive patients is being used as “a criterion to kill,” Schindler charged.
Schindler was responding to news that researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the University of Liège have used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map a patient’s brain activity while he was asked to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.
One patient, a 29-year-old man who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in a traffic accident, was able to communicate by willfully changing his brain activity, a press release from the MRC reports. He correctly answered questions such as “Is your father’s name Alexander?”
Dr. Adrian Owen and his team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England were the developers of the technique.
“We were astonished when we saw the results of the patient’s scan and that he was able to correctly answer the questions that were asked by simply changing his thoughts,” Dr. Owen commented. “Not only did these scans tell us that the patient was not in a vegetative state but, more importantly, for the first time in five years, it provided the patient with a way of communicating his thoughts to the outside world.”
Dr. Steven Laureys of the University of Liège, a co-author of the study, said the scans were the only viable method for the patient to communicate since his accident.
“It’s early days, but in the future we hope to develop this technique to allow some patients to express their feelings and thoughts, control their environment and increase their quality of life.”
The three-year study conducted fMRI scans on 23 patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. The technology detected signs of awareness in four of the cases, 17 percent of the participants.
The fMRI technique can decipher the brain’s answers to questions in healthy participants with 100 percent accuracy but has previously not been used for a patient who cannot move or speak.
Dr. Martin Monti, another MRC co-author of the study, said the advance could help with clinical questions and would allow patients to say if they are feeling any pain.
The new study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Dr. Allan Ropper, a neurologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, wrote an editorial accompanying the study. According to HealthDay News, he said that people are going to have to “grapple” with the meaning of brain scans that show consciousness or residual consciousness.
“It has to do with what you think life is and what is a meaningful life. Those are social, cultural and theological questions,” he said.
He also cautioned against giving false hope to families, noting the small percentage of the responsive patients. All the study’s patients had suffered traumatic brain injuries, not damage from oxygen deprivation.
Speaking of the 29-year-old patient, Monti said “it is still the case that we managed to give him, to a little extent, a voice. In a sense there was a very positive outcome. We managed to interact. This is an extremely exciting thing."
CNA sought comment on the issue from Bobby Schindler of the Terri Schiavo Foundation.
His sister Terri, who was severely brain damaged from oxygen deprivation, was at the center of a 2005 legal dispute in Florida. She was denied nutrition and hydration by court order in a case between her blood relatives and her husband.
Schindler said the study backs other findings about the “unscientific, inaccurate” diagnosis of a persistent vegetative state (PVS) and shows how it is “often” wrong when diagnosing people with severe injuries.
“As in the case of my sister, they’re using this diagnosis as a criterion to kill.”
Schindler said his family had asked a judge for similar testing for Terri but it was denied.
If the technique was easy to conduct and available, he said, it would have given a better understanding of her condition. “Why not ask, especially when it is going to end someone’s life?”
Asked whether the case offers insight into how unresponsive patients should be treated, he replied:
“Nobody should have to earn the right to hydration. We should do everything we can to care for these people, regardless of how responsive or unresponsive they are.”
Schindler lamented that people are being “indoctrinated” to see killing as “an act of compassion.”
“We are morally obligated to care for these people,” Schindler told CNA.
“They should stop any further dehydration deaths, because we’re learning how inaccurate the PVS diagnosis is.”
Discussing the other patients who could not communicate, he said families of unresponsive patients should continue to treat them with “love and compassion.”
But the patient’s condition should never justify removing food, hydration or “basic care,” he stressed.
Schindler also noted that improvements on science are possible and could improve unresponsive patients’ functioning.
“We should never come to the conclusion that someone is better off starving to death,” he told CNA.
He was critical of news reports that claimed the new technology would not have helped Terri Schiavo, saying some stories were written “as if these doctors want to go out of their way to justify Terri’s death.”
“If you read these articles, it seems they always have this caveat: ‘let’s not jump to conclusions with Terri Schiavo and say these tests would have proven she wasn’t in the conditions the doctors said she was in.’”
Schindler told CNA that more doctors were on record saying that Terri could have been helped with some of the technology available. They believed that she wasn’t in a vegetative state.
He also advocated the elimination of the term “vegetative state” from common use, saying it is “dehumanizing” and devalues the person and his or her “inherent moral worth.” In his view, PVS diagnosis should also not be used as a criterion for ending someone’s life because of how often it is wrong.
Schindler said he describes unresponsive patients as “persons with brain injuries.”
“I don’t know why I have to label them as being a vegetable. I think it leads to an existing prejudice against these types of people,” he told CNA.