Pro-Life Perspective: Withholding Food and Fluids, Part Two

Editor’s note. This can also be heard at

TerriSchiavo2The fight for Terri Schindler Schiavo’s life in 2005 captured the attention of the America public– and rightly so.  Unfortunately, polling shows that many Americans still need to be educated about the fundamental right to life and that withdrawing food and fluids in not an act of “compassion.”

In 1997, NRLC Executive Director Dr. David O’Steen, writing for Wisconsin Right to Life’s publication Life Cycle, prophetically discusses the continued push for the withholding food and fluids as so-called  “compassionate medical treatment.”

Dr. O’Steen’s article eerily echoes what we have heard in news stories about patients such Terri Schiavo and little Baby Joseph and about the claim that withdrawing food and fluids was the compassionate thing to do. Today, we continue our examination of Dr. O’Steen’s observations.

If the practice of euthanasia by starvation and dehydration gains widespread acceptance, then the fact that it is killing will eventually be recognized and accepted as well.  At that point, euthanasia advocates can claim that there are much quicker and more humane ways to administer “aid in dying” than death by starvation and dehydration, such as by lethal injection.

Further, lethal injection for a greater pool of incompetent, non-terminal, but “hopelessly ill” patients would be no more voluntary than starvation deaths are today. The same arguments, point for point, used to justify today’s death-by-starvation decisions would be extended so as to guarantee that incompetent patients have a “right to die” by lethal injection—and all at the request of someone else.

It is our challenge over the next decade to teach the public to recognize the value and worth of each individual, regardless of what some see as a “low quality of life.”  We must reject the notion that previously  vibrant individuals with diminished mental capacities are any less valuable than before.

We must discard terminology which labels these vulnerable people as “vegetables.”  We must be vigilant that human resources are available and remain available to care for these individuals.  Love, care, patience, and sacrifice will be needed to ensure that vulnerable, incompetent patients who cannot speak for themselves are able to live with dignity until they die a natural death.  At the same time, legal protection from euthanasia and guarantees of basic care, including provision of food and fluids, must be provided to patients.

Remember, Dr. O’Steen’s observations were written in 1997. Yet when those words were written, we had not seen the enactment of physician assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington state.  Nor had we seen the widespread acceptance by the general public of the withdrawal of food and fluids from patients who are comatose or are in a so-called “persistent vegetative state.”

Unfortunately, many Americans have bought the pro-death argument promulgated by so-called “right to die” advocates that death is preferable to living life with a severe disability and that somehow it is an expression of compassion to support and encourage their deaths.  How wrong they are.  More importantly, how far can we go as a society before we say enough is enough or will we realize we’ve gone too far when it’s too late.

More tomorrow. Tune it at

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