Site Search

Q & A on the Schiavo case

  1. Might other families be subjected to the kind of interference that these conservative Christians and other religious conservatives brought to bear in the Schiavo case?
  2. Will the Schiavo case change patients' rights to direct their end-of-life care?
  3. See our Question and Answer sheet on the Schiavo case.

Religious Restrictions:
End-of-Life Choices

The controversy sparked by the Terri Schiavo end-of-life decision-making case alerted the public that some conservative religious leaders do not approve of family decisions to remove artificially administered artificial nutrition and hydration (commonly known as feeding tubes) from patients who are in a persistent vegetative state.

Fundamentalist Protestant leaders and Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were among the most outspoken critics of the decision by Schiavo's husband, Michael, to remove her feeding tube. They pressured the Bush administrations in both Florida and Washington, D.C. , to undertake an unprecedented level of government action seeking – ultimately unsuccessfully – to block removal of the feeding tubes.

This is a problem that could occur at any hospital – but is of special concern at religiously-sponsored hospitals and nursing homes. Religious health care restrictions at these institutions can interfere with patients' ability to direct their end-of-life care. Some religiously-affiliated hospitals and nursing homes can deny patients and their families the right to make these kinds of treatment decisions based on religious doctrine. For example, Catholic hospitals are governed by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which are issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those Directives specify that patients' end-of-life decisions will be honored unless they conflict with Catholic moral teaching.

At Catholic facilities, end-of-life cases reviewed by hospital ethics committees must include special consideration of what is morally acceptable care. Directive 59 specifies that a patient’s end-of-life decision will be honored “unless it is contrary to Catholic moral teaching.” Directive 61 encourages health care providers to help patients who are not getting relief from pain to “appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.” In response to the Terry Schiavo case, Directive 58 was revised to say that a Catholic health care facility has an obligation to provide artificial nutrition and hydration for patients who cannot take food and water orally. This Directive runs contrary to a patient’s right to refuse unwanted medical treatment, including artificial hydration and nutrition.