Any "patient in a vegetative state had the right to basic sanitary assistance – food, water and hygiene – and to efforts to prevent health complications caused by immobility," the Pope said March 20.
Speaking to 375 medical health professionals and ethicists from 49 countries who came to a conference to Rome to discuss "Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas," Pope John Paul stressed Saturday that it was wrong to "doubt the human nature" of patients in a vegetative state. The conference was organized by the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and the Pontifical Academy for Life.
"I have the duty to reaffirm forcefully that the intrinsic value and dignity of each human being does not change whatever their circumstances," said the 83-year-old pontiff.
"Even gravely ill and prevented from exercising his highest faculties, a man will always remain a man and will never become a 'vegetable' or animal," he added.
Stressing that some coma patients have awakened after very long periods, the pontiff said there was "no ethical justification to reduce or abandon minimum standards of care."
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," the pontiff said.
“Our brothers and sisters, who are in a ‘vegetative state’ maintain their entire human dignity. The loving gaze of the Father continues to to rest on them, recognizing them as His children, who are in particular need of assistance,” he said.
“Doctors, health professionals, society and the Church have moral duties toward these people, from which they cannot refrain, without abandoning the requirements of both the professional deontology and human and Christian solidarity.
“A sick person in a vegetative state, who is awaiting recovery or a natural death, therefore has the right to basic medical assistance (nutrition, hydration, hygiene, heating, etc.) and to the prevention of the complications linked with being bedridden. They also have the right to intervention aimed at rehabilitaion and to the monitoring of their vital signs,” he said.
“In particular, I would like to underline how administering water and food, even when given by artificial means, always represents a natural means of conserving life, not a medical act. In addition, its use should be considered in principle, ordinary and proportioned, and as such morally obligatory,” until the patient demonstrates that he is reaching his actual end, said the Pope. Until that time, medical assistance must consist of giving the patient food and alleviating his or her suffering.
“It is not enough to simply reaffirm the general principal according to which the value of one man’s life cannot be subject to the judgment of the quality of life of other men,” the Pope emphasized. “It is necessary to promote positive actions to oppose the pressures to suspend hydration and nutrition, as a means of putting an end to the life of these patients.
“It is necessary, above all, to support the families, who have had one of their loved ones struck with this terrible clinical condition. They cannot be left alone with their heavy human psychological and economic burdens,” he continued.
"In these situations, then, spiritual counseling and pastoral aid are particularly important to understand the profound significance of a condition that seems desperate," he concluded.