The Pope on PVS

Does JPII's Statement Make the Grade?

A recent address by Pope John Paul II regarding the care of patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) has left many people—Catholics and others—scratching their heads. If the withdrawal of tube feeding or artificially administered hydration can be the equivalent of “euthanasia by omission,” do we all need to rethink the decisions we have made in our advance directives and living wills? What immediate impact will this statement have on Catholic hospitals, for both Catholic and non-Catholic patients? Part of the difficulty in determining the weight and moral authority of the statement is that it comes from John Paul II himself, and it can be hard to separate the message from the messenger. Notwithstanding the authority of the messenger, the message deserves examination on its own terms. How might we read this text if it were, say, a thesis proposal submitted to an interdisciplinary committee for review at a Catholic university? Here is one possibility.

Dear Student:

We have read your proposal with great interest, as it addresses a topic about which there is much public debate. The ongoing case of Terri Schiavo in Florida is just one example.

In brief, you propose to show there is a moral obligation to maintain nutrition and hydration, “even artificially administered,” for the PVS patient, saying that doing so is “necessarily ordinary...

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About the Author

Rev. John F. Tuohey holds the Endowed Chair of Applied Health Care Ethics, and is regional director of the Providence Center for Health Care Ethics for Providence Health & Services in Oregon, a part of Providence Health & Services health system based in Renton, Washington.