The Persistent Vegetative State And The Withdrawal Of Nutrition And Hydration -- By: Robert V. Rakestraw

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 35:3 (Sep 1992)
Article: The Persistent Vegetative State And The Withdrawal Of Nutrition And Hydration
Author: Robert V. Rakestraw


The Persistent Vegetative State
And The Withdrawal Of Nutrition And Hydration

Robert V. Rakestraw*

In recent discussions of euthanasia, coma, and the withdrawal of artificially supplied nutrition and fluids, considerable confusion exists where these topics intersect with the condition known as persistent vegetative state (PVS). For example the terms “PVS” and “coma” are sometimes erroneously used interchangeably, especially by the popular media.1 Further, regarding the withdrawal of food and water from PVS individuals, some opponents of the practice wrongly allege the intention to kill (aiming at death) on the part of all who allow the practice.2 Such withdrawal is sometimes incorrectly viewed as euthanasia and is grouped indiscriminately with the deliberate termination of the lives of conscious yet severely disabled persons.3

The case of Nancy Cruzan—the first “right to die” case to reach the United States Supreme Court—brought the matter of the PVS before the public and the evangelical world with a special urgency. The case of Cruzan v. Director of Missouri Department of Health was called a “moral watershed for our nation “ and “the equivalent of Roe v. Wade.”4 On June 25, 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that family members can be prohibited from ending the lives of “persistently comatose” relatives who have not made their wishes known clearly and convincingly. The parents of 32-year-old Nancy Cruzan were thus barred from ordering the removal of tubes that provided her with food and water.

* Robert Rakestraw is associate professor of theology at Bethel Theological Seminary, 3949 Bethel Drive, St. Paul, MN 55112.

After a serious car accident, Cruzan’s brain had received no oxygen for nearly fourteen minutes. At the time of the high court’s decision she lay in a Missouri hospital bed, receiving fluid and nutrition through a small tube into her stomach. Expected to exist in this condition for another thirty to forty years with no hope of improvement, she was said to be in a persistent vegetative state.5 The courts subsequently permitted the withdrawal of food and water after “clear and convincing” evidence was presented that Nancy Cruzan would not have wanted to continue in such a condition. On December 26, 1990, the life of Nancy Cruzan came to an end, twelve days after her feeding tube was removed at the request of her parents. “She remained peaceful throughout ...

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