By Patrick B. Craine

June 12, 2009 ( – A group of fourteen Catholic scholars released a statement this month in the journal of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Ethics and Medics, affirming John Paul II’s teaching on the right of people in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ (PVS) to food and water.

The statement was made as a reply to an article published February 13th in Commonweal by a ‘consortium’ of seven directors of bioethics programs at Jesuit universities, who question the papal teaching.

American Catholic academics have argued for denying food and water to patients in a PVS before. As reported in 2005, several dissident Catholic scholars were influential in the death of Terri Schiavo, arguing for the legitimacy of starving her to death.

The controversy is taking place in preparation for the June meeting of the American bishops, where they will discuss amending their ‘Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services’ (ERDs), released in 2001, to bring the directives more fully in line with John Paul II’s March 2004 teaching on PVS. The Consortium argues that the directives should not be amended.

According to the Consortium, “the pope’s statement included some assertions that surprised many involved in health care,” and constituted “a departure from long-standing Roman Catholic bioethical traditions.” The only example the Consortium gives for this latter claim are the ERDs, which they say are at odds with the Pope’s teaching.

The Consortium took issue with the Pope’s statement that artificial nutrition and hydration “always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act.” “The reality is,” they say, “that within the fields of medicine and law, the practice generally is viewed as a medical treatment.”

But, the scholars assert in their reply that “this misses the point of the papal teaching.” The Pope’s comment, they say, “is not a judgment about the ­­complexity of health care procedures. âEUR¦ Feeding disabled people is not a ­medical ­treatment, even though a medical procedure may be ­required. It is a form of care owed to all persons, including patients in a PVS.”

The scholars point out that when the current edition of the ERDs were released in 2001, the bishops presumed the need for giving food and water to all patients, but they did not include an explicit teaching on PVS because the question had not yet been settled by the Magisterium. But now that the Pope has drawn out this teaching, they say, the directives should be made more explicit.

“While the authors of this document,” the scholars say, “believe that the ERDs are in basic compliance with John Paul II’s teaching that is necessary to provide nutrition and hydration to all patients who are not imminently dying, this misinterpretation of the ERDs by the Consortium leads us to believe that perhaps some revision would be beneficial.”

Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition Canada, has applauded the scholars for their defense of life, calling their work “an excellent defense of the reality that to directly and intentionally dehydrate a person to death, who is not otherwise dying, is ‘slow’ euthanasia.”

He warns that the acceptance of this practice could easily lead to even graver forms of euthanasia. “If we continue to turn a blind eye to the intentional dehydration of people who are not otherwise dying (slow euthanasia),” he says, “the result will be a strong demand for the legalization of death by injection. Once family members are forced to witness the death of a loved one by dehydration, they will demand that death by injection become a legal option.”

See related coverage:

Dissident Professors At U.S. Catholic Universities Pave Way To Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide