One week ago, Vincent Lambert’s doctors in Reims, France placed him under heavy sedation and began the gruesome process of starving and dehydrating him to death. Vincent was disabled in a motorcycle accident over ten years ago and since then has had to receive food and water through a feeding tube. On June 28, Vincent’s wife received permission from France’s highest civil court to make her husband dead. Vincent‘s parents have fought valiantly to save his life, but they have exhausted all legal remedies and are now forced to sit by and watch their son die an agonizing death.
Even though euthanasia is technically illegal in the United States (as it is in France), starving and dehydrating disabled and other vulnerable patients is a routine practice. Because this type of “passive euthanasia” is now part of our health care system, you should become familiar with the following terms:
“Passive euthanasia” People often assume that because euthanasia is against the law, hospitals do not intentionally kill patients. Some ethicists distinguish between “active” and “passive” euthanasia. Active euthanasia is defined as directly causing a person‘s death, while passive euthanasia refers to simply allowing him or her to die. But make no mistake about it, someone who removes sustenance from a person like Vincent who is not able to obtain food and water without assistance is directly and intentionally causing his suffering and death. Not only is this active euthanasia; it is murder.
“Life Support” Major media outlets report that doctors are removing Vincent‘s life support. This is inaccurate. Life support typically refers to mechanical ventilation. Vincent is able to breathe on his own and does not require a ventilator. Receiving food and water through a device such as a feeding tube is not life support. In the U.S. alone, about half a million people, including 250,000 children, receive their nutrition this way.
“Extraordinary Means” Some people believe it is appropriate to withdraw care and treatment that is deemed “extraordinary.” Usually, this refers to care that only serves to prolong death that is imminent, i.e., within a few hours or days at most. It is also defined as care that imposes a disproportionate burden on a patient or family member. In his response to Terri Schiavo‘s death by starvation and dehydration, Pope John Paul II said that food and water are always “ordinary” care and represent a “natural means” of preserving life. Society has a moral obligation to provide such care, as persons with disorders of consciousness have intrinsic value and personal dignity.
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“Persistent Vegetative State” Some articles report that Vincent is in a “vegetative” state, which implies that he is less than human. Recent studies have shown that many brain-injured patients are not accurately diagnosed, with patients being referred to as vegetative when they are actually minimally conscious and able to respond to those around them. Regardless of their level of consciousness, such patients are very much alive and deserving of proper care, including the provision of food and water.
“Death with Dignity” People in favor of using starvation and dehydration to cause death argue that this practice allows the disabled to have a “dignified” death. But there is a reason Vincent‘s doctors sedated him—taking away a person‘s food and water is excruciating, not dignified. In any other context, this type of torturous death is considered a crime against humanity.
Life Legal has seen an alarming increase in calls asking for help on behalf of loved ones who are threatened with death by starvation and dehydration. These are not patients for whom death would otherwise be imminent. Rather, these are people that health care providers—and sometimes even family members—consider inconvenient and dispensable.
We have successfully intervened in many such cases and I have personally met people who are alive and thriving today because we were able to get food and water restored to them. In each of these cases we have to push hard against the increasingly prevalent notion that people—even those with temporary injuries—are better off being starved and dehydrated to death.
It is not easy to confront the culture of death in hospitals and courtrooms, which are some of our most respected institutions.
LifeNews Note: Alexandra Snyder is the executive director of Life Legal Defense Foundation.