Ethics Statements

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Vegetative State Position Statement

I. Rationale for the Opinion

As Christian physicians, we seek to practice our profession in accordance with the Word of God, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Medical science and technology have made it possible to keep patients alive when they are in a vegetative state. Even among Christians there is considerable controversy over the status and treatment of these patients. Biblical teaching does not provide explicit guidance to patients, their surrogates, and their physicians for making treatment decisions in these challenging situations. We issue this opinion to help Christian physicians care for such patients.

II. General Principles

  1. God is the Creator and is sovereign in all circumstances and conditions.
  2. God created all humans in His image, and therefore all human life has inestimable worth.
  3. God has entrusted us with our lives and resources. We are responsible to Him for our healthcare decisions. We desire to be wise and trustworthy stewards of what God has given us to use.
  4. When humans die, their eternal destiny rests with a just and loving God. For a Christian, to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord; therefore, death need not be resisted at all costs. (See the opinion on Patient Refusal of Therapy).
  5. All patients, regardless of their diagnosis or condition, must be treated with dignity, and we should continue to pray for their healing.
  6. As physicians, we are never to kill patients or assist in their suicide (See Opinions on Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia).

III. Definitions

  1. While much of the medical literature refers to individuals who suffer severe cortical dysfunction as "vegetative," we must be careful not to dehumanize our patients through our language, attitudes or actions. Patients said to be in a vegetative state are neither dead nor less than human ("vegetables").
  2. Aperson is said to be in a vegetative state when he or she exhibits no evidence of cortical brain function, but exhibits some brain stem function. This is a descriptive term. A person is said to be in a persistent vegetative state when repeated careful clinical examinations confirm that the condition has continued for some length of time. This is a diagnostic term. A patient is said to be in a permanent vegetative state when sufficient time has passed that the professionals involved believe there is no reasonable probability that the condition will improve. This is a prognostic term. Patients in a vegetative state are unaware of themselves and their environment and are unable to interact with others. They may breathe on their own and retain some brainstem reflexes, possibly including the ability to swallow.

IV. Recommendations

  1. To respect the sanctity of human life and to be good stewards of it, Christian physicians ought to ensure that the diagnosis and prognosis of the permanent vegetative state are correct. Once the prognosis is established, and recognizing that God is not dependent on our technology to effect His perfect plan, the use of medical technology to prolong these patients' earthly existence may not be morally required in all cases.
  2. The decision regarding the use of technology should have been made by the patient (by use of an advance directive prior to cortical injury) or be made by the patient's surrogate attempting to decide as the patient would have decided. Patients and surrogates may decide to refuse procedures and/or artificial supports to life or to have them discontinued. While artificially administered nutrition and hydration may be considered an artificial support to life, food and water by mouth should be offered to all patients. Sincere Christians differ about the morality of withholding or withdrawing artificially administered nutrition and hydration from patients in a permanent vegetative state. There are compelling arguments on both sides. Since we hold that withdrawal of nutrition or hydration for the specific purpose of taking a patient's life is impermissible, we suggest that anyone (either patients and surrogates or physicians) faced with such a decision weigh both sides of the issue prayerfully and seek God's will in reaching a decision.
  3. Remembering that God is sovereign, we suggest that each Christian physician seek His guidance prayerfully, and solicit the wise counsel of others in the management of these patients. If a physician, because of moral convictions, is unable to comply with the patient's or surrogate's wishes to withhold or withdraw artificially administered nutrition and hydration, it is appropriate for the physician to withdraw from the care of the patient as soon as another physician assumes that care.
  4. As Christian physicians we desire to share the love of Christ with others. We will treat the families of patients who are in a vegetative state with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, as we assist them in making these decisions.

Approved by the CMDA House of Delegates
Passed with a vote of 61 in favor, 2 opposed, 4 abstentions
May 2, 1998, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Download file Vegetative State Position Statement with References