Medical Symposium to Focus on "Vegetative State"

Organized by Catholic Federation and Pontifical Academy

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 16, 2004 ( The Holy See and a Catholic medical group have convoked a symposium to affirm that a patient does not lose his dignity or rights when in a so-called vegetative state.

This proposal was expressed today during a presentation in the Vatican press office for the international congress on «Life-Sustaining Treatments and the Vegetative State: Scientific Advances Ethical Dilemmas.»

The congress is organized and promoted by the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC) and the Pontifical Academy for Life. It will be held in Rome this Wednesday through Saturday.

The meeting will gather 40 science reporters and 370 participants from 49 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Israel and Kazakhstan, at the Augustinianum Patristic Institute. Forty talks by scientific experts are scheduled, as well as 30 reports.

At the press conference, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Council for Life, refuted the position «that when a person loses the use of reason, he or she ceases to be a person and then there is the possibility of interrupting feeding and hydration in order to facilitate his or her death.»

«As long as there is life in the person, that person continues to exist in all of his or her dignity, with all of his or her soul,» said the bishop, who is director of the Bioethics Center of Rome’s University of the Sacred Heart.

This poses the question of the feeding and hydration of vegetative patients. Bishop Sgreccia said that it is a duty both from an ethical point of view — it makes possible the preservation of the good of life — as well as from a medical point of view, since in the present state of scientific knowledge, it is not possible to know ahead of time if these patients will be cured.

Gianluigi Gigli, president of FIAMC and director of the Department of Neurosciences of Santa Maria de la Misericordia Hospital of Udine, Italy, said that people in a vegetative state not be treated as «terminal patients.»

Cases analyzed scientifically have shown a margin of error of up to 43% in the diagnosis of patients, who in some cases have been cured after being unconscious for years, he said.

In some cases, patients have been condemned to die of hunger or thirst, in virtue of a deontological view that classifies these patients at a lower level than the rest of patients, Gigli lamented.

Bishop Sgreccia said that a person cannot deny himself food and water, through a will, should he fall into a vegetative state, as it would be «suicide.» At any rate, he added, a doctor is not obliged to violate the deontological code itself, nor can he consider himself a simple executor of such a will.

At the end of the press conference, Gigli presented a CD-ROM published by the Federation of Catholic Doctors, in Italian and English, which gathers all John Paul II’s addresses on health and medicine.

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