The Life You Save May Be Your Own

By Susan E. Wills

February 22, 2008

Since Terri Schiavo's death in March 2005, her brother Bobby Schindler has been fighting for the lives of people who are cognitively impaired or dying, but not dying "fast enough" to suit their family members or caregivers. In the February 18 Washington Times, Mr. Schindler wrote in response to a judge's recent decision to order the dehydration death of Lauren Richardson – a young woman, much like Terri, who sustained a serious brain injury in 2006. She is one of the thousands of conscious and unconscious patients who will die by deliberate dehydration this year, Schindler contends, but "we only hear of the cases in which there is family disagreement."

He continues: "For reasons I still struggle to understand, deliberately dehydrating persons with brain injuries really doesn't seem to catch the ire of most Americans." The same day, a retired professor of religion and social ethics conveniently illustrated the lack of ire. Writing in America, he questioned the wisdom of the Holy See's August 2007 statement against withdrawing assisted nutrition and hydration (ANH) from patients who are in a so-called "permanent vegetative state."

That statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), approved by Pope Benedict, explains that "the administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life." This means that ANH is morally obligatory for cognitively impaired patients who can't take food or water by mouth, except in "rare" circumstances (e.g., the patient cannot assimilate food or water because, for example, he's imminently dying, feeding tubes are unavailable, they cannot be used due to recurrent infections at the site or would cause serious suffering).

The CDF's statement reiterates principles lucidly expressed by Pope John Paul II in a March 20, 2004 address. Notwithstanding distortions by some dissenting theologians, the Church has never taught that one is required to undergo every possible treatment that has any hope of prolonging life – no matter how risky, experimental or costly. However, "ordinary" care is required to preserve life. The relevant documents are available at:

There's room here for two simple points concerning ANH.

First: Providing food and water to a patient is ordinary care. It is not given to treat or cure a disease of the digestive system. It's given to sustain life, because anyone deprived of food and fluids will die in a matter of days or weeks. ANH is a lot like feeding a toddler (only less messy) or like going to the drive-up window at McDonald's (only healthier).

Second: Those who support withdrawing ANH from persons who are cognitively impaired claim there's no dignity or value in the patients' continued existence. They depersonalize and dehumanize these persons, as if their inability to actively socialize with others or to obviously pursue "the spiritual goods of life" makes them "as good as dead."

But humans are not souls in a box, leaving only an empty shell when they cannot visibly think and act. We're a unity of body and soul, with intrinsic and immeasurable worth. Under anesthesia, asleep or seemingly unaware of our surroundings, we remain ourselves. And a person in this state can be a powerful instrument of salvation for others, calling them to heroic love and sacrifice with no expectation of thanks or reciprocity.

In the end, the way we treat persons who are dying or cognitively impaired reveals more about our humanity and dignity than it does about theirs. As John Paul II reminded us in 2004: "Even our brothers and sisters ... in ... a 'vegetative state' retain their human dignity in all its fullness. The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help."

Susan Wills is Assistant Director for Education and Outreach, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. Go to to learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities.