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

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

"We always said it didn't matter. However, I think if Terri would have been given the opportunity of rehabilitation and therapy, denied to her since 1992, she could have improved."

At least one specialist told the family that he could "not rule out that Terri may have been in a "minimally conscious state," which is a higher level of consciousness than the PVS diagnosis.

The courts also ignored an affidavit from another neurologist who said she could teach Schiavo to swallow.

The Catholic Church generally honors patient advance directives, as long as they do not "counter the church's moral teachings," according to Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the U.S. Bishops Committee on Doctrine.

But in cases like the Schiavo one, doctor should "give them the care given to any other human person," he told

"We don't know if it's a vegetative state, or, as it the case of the guy from Belgium, consciousness could just manifest itself in a way people can't understand. To just let the person die when there is no condition causing them to die, would be a form of euthanasia."

But others, like Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices, whose slogan is, "My Life. My Death. My Choice," say the church action imposes "dogma over dignity."

"The order runs counter to written instructions in hundreds of thousands of advance directives and the clear wishes of many individuals with no written document," said Coombs Lee.

"The primary consideration in health care decisions should always be with the individual's values, beliefs and desires, not fixed doctrine of any religion."

The ruling would pertain to the 565 Catholic hospitals -- about 20 percent of all admissions nationwide, according to the Catholic Health Association, but Coombs Lee said its impact on non-Catholics could be equally devastating.

"A lot of communities are served by Catholic hospitals only," she told "You don't have a choice when you are a trauma victim."

The directive also applies to ambulances that serve those hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and insurance policies are affiliated with the church.

"The bishops are talking about patients, too, and if you are not Catholic, it doesn't make a difference, it applies to you," said Coombs Lee. "You are in the house, you follow house rules."

"People don't understand that when they make the choice to go to the Catholic hospital or hospice they are subjecting themselves to the ministry of the Vatican," she said. "Choices can be severely limited and these are agonizing and difficult decisions that have just been made a lot harder."

Doctors Comply With Advance Directives

All states grant legal immunity to doctors for following advance directives, but doctors can decline.

More often than not, doctors comply with patient wishes, but many patients still don't make them known, according to Dr. Joy Hirsch, director of the Program for Imaging and Cognitive Sciences at Columbia University.

"Oftentimes we try to have patients in to reevaluate their advance directives if they were made outside the context they are in," she told

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