With end-of-life issues receiving an increasing amount of attention in recent years, the bishops of the United States sent a series of questions to the Vatican about providing food and water to those near death. Today the Vatican published its response to these questions and implicitly condemned the treatment of Terri Schiavo, a comatose Florida woman who was starved to death when her husband and doctors withheld food from her.
The replies to the questions posed by the bishops were published in a document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and were approved by the Holy Father.
The first question the bishops asked was: “Is the administration of food and water (whether by natural or artificial means) to a patient in a 'vegetative state' morally obligatory except when they cannot be assimilated by the patient's body or cannot be administered to the patient without causing significant physical discomfort?”
The CDF replied that, “Yes. The administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life. It is therefore obligatory to the extent to which, and for as long as, it is shown to accomplish its proper end, which is the hydration and nourishment of the patient. In this way suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented.”
Cardinal William Levada, the head of the CDF, also provided further clarification noting that there may be circumstances of poverty or geographical remoteness where the means of artificially providing food and water to a patient may not be available. In this case, those caring for the patient should do all that they are able to keep that person alive.
He also noted that it could occur that a person’s body might stop retaining even artificial nutrition or water. If this occurs then it would be okay to stop providing them with food and water.
The Vatican was also asked by the U.S. bishops about another situation which is reminiscent of the Terri Schiavo case. The prelates asked, “When nutrition and hydration are being supplied by artificial means to a patient in a 'permanent vegetative state,' may they be discontinued when competent physicians judge with moral certainty that the patient will never recover consciousness?”
The response from the Vatican maintained clear and consistent respect for life at all its stages. The CDF responded, “No. A patient in a 'permanent vegetative state' is a person with fundamental human dignity and must, therefore, receive ordinary and proportionate care which includes, in principle, the administration of water and food even by artificial means."
Echoing a key distinction that Pope John Paul II made in a 2004 speech, Levada said, “[T]he provision of water and food, even by artificial means, always represents a 'natural means' for preserving life, and is not a 'therapeutic treatment.' The late Holy Father’s teaching was in direct opposition to those argued that food and water can be considered extraordinary means to prolong a patient’s life.
Speaking directly to a situation like Terri Schiavo’s, Cardinal Levada said, “Its [food and water] use should therefore be considered 'ordinary and proportionate,' even when the 'vegetative state' is prolonged."