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Terri Schiavo, 37, of St. Petersburg, Florida, has received food through a feeding tube for the past eleven years, after an incident in which her heart stopped and she was deprived of oxygen for five minutes. Although unable to move, Terri can breathe on her own and her parents attest that she moans, smiles and cries and opens and closes her eyes in response to their care. However, some doctors say that her actions are only reflexes.

Her parents have been fighting a desperate legal battle for eight years with her husband over his decision to have her nutrition and hydration withdrawn. That will cause her to starve to death, since she is unable to swallow. The battle ended April 17 when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their appeal, thus forcing the hospital to discontinue Terri’s twice-daily feeding sessions.

Being Catholics, Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, had requested the assistance of their local bishop in the battle for the life of their daughter. However, Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg refused to intervene. The diocese released a statement saying that Roman Catholic theology suggests the removal of nutrition can be justified under certain circumstances.

Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, however, released a statement last year on principles for health care decisions concerning assisted nutrition and hydration and related issues. Drawing on the Oct. 2, 1998 Ad Limina Address to the Bishops of California, Nevada and Hawaii by Pope John Paul II, the bishop noted that there “should be a presumption in favour of providing nutrition and hydration to all patients.” In his statement, Archbishop Rigali wrote, “As Catholics, we believe a person has a moral obligation to use ordinary or proportionate means of preserving his or her life.” In the letter he quoted the 1992 statement by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities called, “Nutrition and Hydration: Moral and Pastoral Reflections,” and stressed that “we reject any omission of nutrition and hydration intended to cause a patient’s death.”

Clearly in the Terri’s case, the removal of nutrition and hydration will cause her death. In fact, doctors testified that with food and water, she could have lived decades longer, but in the same so-called “vegetative” state she has been in for years. A request by the parents to allow Terri a few more days of life so that out-of-town relatives could visit was refused by Michael Schiavo.