Skip to main content


SPECIAL: 'A Patient in a Vegetative State Is a Human Person'

3/1/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

Advertisment

Interview With Dr. Gian Luigi Gigli, of a Catholic Federation

ROME, MAR. 01, 2005 (Zenit) - The vegetative state is a "pejorative term" which implies lack of humanity, warns Dr. Gian Luigi Gigli, president of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations.

Gigli is co-author with Dr. Nathan Zasler of the book "Life-Sustaining Treatments in Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas," reprinted in a special issue of the Neurorehabilitation review, published by Iospress. The book is the result of a congress on this topic.

Q: What does it mean to be in a vegetative state and what is the Church's position?

Gigli: A vegetative state is verified in some patients when they come out of a coma, and it is characterized by a prolonged condition of wakefulness without apparent awareness on the part of the patient either of himself or of his surroundings.

The physiotherapy for this disorder is not yet clear, and the cerebral lesions that can cause it are of different types and in many areas.

The patient, alternating sleep with wakefulness, does not give answers that seem to make sense. It is not a terminal illness and does not require machines to guarantee vital functions.

However, the patient needs care, in particular, to be hydrated and fed, sometimes with patience through the mouth, more often with a probe or a tube in the abdominal wall, the PEG [percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy].

For the Church, the patient in a vegetative state is a human person, in need of affectionate care. The discussion that has taken place between moralists and Catholic health institutions in past years has focused on indefinite continuation of hydration and nutrition, even if hopes for a resumption, though partial, of consciousness seem to be diminishing.

Some have seen in the prolongation of hydration and nutrition aggressive therapy; others have interpreted it as euthanasia by omission of the suspension of care, considering the mortal consequences that inevitably derive.

From outside the Church, the pressures of scientific societies, magistrates and some family members are very strong, as is occurring in the Terri Schiavo case in the United States, in favor of the suspension of hydration and nutrition. They are pressures based on the attribution of the little value of life, when its "quality" is greatly reduced.

However, resistances are also very strong by those who see in such procedures a surreptitious method to authorize, in fact, euthanasia in countries where it is prohibited, extending it later, as is already occurring, to other conditions such as dementia, mental retardation or acute ictus.

Q: Up to what point is the vegetative state "vegetative"?

Gigli: Beyond the term, which should be reformed because of its pejorative character -- referring to a condition of the patient's lack of humanity -- it must be acknowledged that a rudimentary perception of pain cannot be excluded, as there are studies that prove the persistence of rudimentary processes of recognition and discrimination of stimuli.

An indirect proof that there are doubts of a neuroanatomic and neurophysiological order on the total lack of perception of pain in these patients is the common practice of subjecting them to pharmacological sedation during the 15 days in which the death of the patient is effected after the suspension of hydration and nutrition.

The vegetative state is diagnosed too often with excessive speed, with a high percentage of mistaken diagnoses, including within qualified health institutions. In particular, it must not be confused with other neurological conditions in which there is a state of prolonged reduction of the levels of consciousness.

Q: What did John Paul II say that was new in the treatment of patients in vegetative state in his historic address last March 20?

Gigli: The Holy Father, in as you say his "historic" address, pronounced words that serve to clarify misunderstandings among Catholics, avoiding -- for example -- suspension of hydration and nutrition in cases in which it should not be done, as unfortunately has occurred in some North American Catholic hospitals.

Despite the fact that there are many attempts by moralists and Catholic health institutions to reduce the scope of the Pope's words, his message was very clear. For the Pope, judgment on the quality of life and on the costs of care cannot prevail over the respect due to the patient's life.

Hydration and nutrition must be considered as ordinary and proportionate means for the objective that they intend, i.e. to nourish the patient. As such, they are morally obligatory, even if they are administered through a tube.

For the Pope, the fact that there is a high probability that ...

1 | 2  Next Page

Rate This Article

Very Helpful Somewhat Helpful Not Helpful at All

Yes, I am Interested No, I am not Interested

Rate Article

0 Comments

Leave a Comment

Comments submitted must be civil, remain on-topic and not violate any laws including copyright. We reserve the right to delete any comments which are abusive, inappropriate or not constructive to the discussion.

Though we invite robust discussion, we reserve the right to not publish any comment which denigrates the human person, undermines marriage and the family, or advocates for positions which openly oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This is a supervised forum and the Editors of Catholic Online retain the right to direct it.

We also reserve the right to block any commenter for repeated violations. Your email address is required to post, but it will not be published on the site.

We ask that you NOT post your comment more than once. Catholic Online is growing and our ability to review all comments sometimes results in a delay in their publication.

Send me important information from Catholic Online and it's partners. See Sample

Post Comment

Newsletter Sign Up

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 3:14-21
This, then, is what I pray, kneeling before the Father, from ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 33:1-2, 4-5, 11-12, 18-19
Shout for joy, you upright; praise comes well from the honest. ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 12:49-53
'I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were ... Read More

Saint of the Day

October 23 Saint of the Day

St. John of Capistrano
October 23: St. John was born at Capistrano, Italy in 1385, the son of a ... Read More