The Vatican said that patients in a vegetative state, with few exceptions, have a moral right to artificial food and hydration.
U.S. Roman Catholic bishops had asked the Vatican in July 2005 to clarify the churchs position on food and hydration for patients in a vegetative state, including those expected never to recover. The request followed a March 2004 speech by Pope John Paul II that raised questions among U.S. Roman Catholic healthcare providers about whether such care can be withheld.
The nations 615 Catholic hospitals follow religious and ethical directives for care and business operations set by the church. The bishops request also came amid an intense legal and political battle over removal of a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged Florida woman (March 28, 2005, p. 4). Schiavo died after her feeding tube was removed in March 2005.
Under the churchs policy suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented, said a statement from the Vatican, which Pope Benedict XVI approved. Nutrition and hydration support may not be obligatory when such care becomes excessively burdensome or when patients cannot assimilate food and liquids so that there provision becomes altogether useless, the Vaticans Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said in the statement.
Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the statement does not contradict prior church teaching, but for the first time explicitly states that it is immoral to remove food and hydration from vegetative patients who will likely never regain consciousness.
And it specifies conditions, believed to be rare, when such support is not obligated, he said. This is something we owe people because of human dignity, Doerflinger said.