Catholic World News News Feature

Vatican: nutrition, hydration obligatory for coma patients September 14, 2007

Providing nutrition and hydration for a comatose patient is "an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life," and is therefore "obligatory" in most circumstances, the Vatican has stated.

In a document released on September 14, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) responded to questions that had been submitted by the US bishops' conference, regarding care for patients living in a "vegetative state." Because the moral principles involved are widely applicable, the full text of the CDF response, which was approved by Pope Benedict XVI, has been posted on the Vatican web site, with translations available in several languages.

The Vatican statement is an official response to moral questions that have arisen in several high-profile medical cases, such as the case of Terri Schiavo. The CDF clearly sides with those who argued that nutrition and hydration (food and water) should not have been withdrawn from the comatose woman in that case.

"The administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life," the CDF states. "In this way suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented."

The moral obligation to provide ordinary care for a patient continues even when that patient has no realistic chance of recovery, the CDF continues.

The CDF statement makes it clear that the moral obligation to provide nutrition and hydration by artificial means applies only when this care can be "administered to the patient without causing significant physical discomfort." A lengthy explanatory note accompanying the Vatican document add that the obligation "in principle" to provide nutrition and hydration may not apply "in very remote places or in situations of extreme poverty, the artificial provision of food and water may be physically impossible."

The Vatican statement is signed by Cardinal William Levada and Archbishop Angelo Amato: the prefect and secretary, respectively, of the CDF. The document is a response to questions that were submitted in 2005 by the US bishops' committee on doctrine-- which was, ironically, chaired at that time by then-Archbishop Levada.