Belgian Case Reignites Life Support' Debate as Catholics Order Force Feedings

The family of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who was artificially kept alive for 15 years, say they feel both heartbreak and vindication over the news this week that a Belgian man thought to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) was fully conscious for two decades.

Schiavo, who had been diagnosed with a profound brain injury, was at the center of a seven-year legal tug-of-war that involved Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and even President George W. Bush before a judge granted her husband the right to allow her to die in 2005.

In a strikingly similar case this week, Belgian doctors revealed that Ron Houbens -- thought to have no brain activity since a 1983 car crash -- had actually been paralyzed and was fully conscious, able to hear everything around him but not respond.

With the news that patients can be mentally "locked in" -- unable to breathe or eat on their own or communicate, yet fully aware cognitively --- some religious and ethical groups are saying, "I told you so."

And now the Catholic Church has weighed in, ordering doctors at its hospitals to ignore patients' advanced directives indicating they do not want artificial feeding if they are diagnosed as permanently unconscious.

"This is why we created our foundation, for stories like this man," said Bobby Schindler, executive director of the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation.

"Tens of thousands of people with cognitive injuries like these are using PVS to diagnose and kill," he told ABCNews.com. "We are learning how unscientific the diagnosis is. It's completely subjective and we are using it to sentence people to death and it's dangerous."

On the heels of both cases, the U.S. Conference of Bishops has issued a ruling that patients with chronic conditions like PVS who are not imminently dying should receive food and water by "medically assisted" means if they cannot eat or drink on their own.

"As a general rule, there is an obligation to provide patients with food and water, including medically assisted nutrition and hydration for those who cannot take food orally," states the new text of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

The Schindlers, who are Roman Catholic, support the measure: "We believe we are morally obligated to care for these people."

Schiavo collapsed in her St. Petersburg, Fla., home of respiratory and cardiac arrest in 1990, and attempts to resuscitate deprived her of oxygen, causing profound brain damage.

She remained comatose for several months, before doctors diagnosed PVS. For 15 years, she was kept alive through a feeding tube.

Her husband, Michael Schiavo, successfully argued that she did not wish to be kept alive by artificial methods, but her family insisted until the end that their daughter was responsive and should receive nutrition as long as she was not dying.

Court Appeals, Congress Could Not Save Schiavo

Before 14 court appeals and a highly publicized intervention by Congress to briefly reinsert feeding tubes, Schiavo was removed from life support and died of starvation 13 days later.

An autopsy later confirmed Schiavo had extensive brain damage with no chance of recovery, but her family said that made no difference in their effort to save their daughter.

"Terri's autopsy revealed nothing that my family didn't already know -- that Terri had a profound brain injury," said Schindler.

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