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Vatican weighs in on Schiavo case

From CNN Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci

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The Vatican reacts to the feeding tube not being re-attached to Terri Schiavo.
Who should decide Terri Schiavo's fate?
Her parents
Her husband
Supreme Court
Terri Schiavo
Pope John Paul II

ROME, Italy (CNN) -- It is rare for Vatican officials to publicly discuss ongoing legal matters.

But in the case of Terri Schiavo -- a brain-damaged American woman who has been kept alive for 15 years -- they have taken the unusual step of harshly criticizing the removal of her feeding tube.

They say the procedure amounts to nothing less than a ruthless way to kill a person.

"It is euthanasia," says Javier Lozano, of the Pontiff's Council for Health.

Schiavo is at the center of a legal battle over her life -- a battle between her husband and parents, and between politician and judges.

On Tuesday, a U.S. federal judge denied an emergency request to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube. (Full story)

While church officials say they are opposed to keeping a person alive at all costs -- especially if medical intervention prolongs the patient's agony -- the Vatican insists that artificially feeding and hydrating a person in a vegetative state does not constitute aggressive therapy.

A year ago, Pope John Paul II wrote that doctors have a moral duty to preserve life.

"The administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural way of preserving life... not a medical procedure."

But because the 41-year-old Schiavo has been pronounced brain damaged, not brain dead, Vatican officials say she must be kept alive.

"The end of life is a question only in the hands of God. This is our belief. It is not something that must be in the hands of politicians or in the hands of physicians... but in the hands of God only," says the Council for Health's Lozano.

Nobody at the Vatican is drawing parallels between Schiavo's condition and that of the ailing pope.

Still, the debate over Schiavo's fate has once more raised questions no one inside the Vatican can answer: What would happen should the pope become incapacitated? Should he one day require artificial means to breathe, eat and drink, how long should these machines be used? And, who would make the decision to pull the plug?

"There is no provision in Canon Law for the case in which the pope himself is not able to take decisions," says Father Brian Johnstone. "That would cause considerable difficulties."

The 84-year-old pope suffers from a number of chronic illnesses, including crippling hip and knee ailments and Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder that can make breathing difficult.

He was released from hospital on March 13 after undergoing a tracheotomy the same day to relieve breathing difficulties. He was also in hospital from February 1 to February 10.

In the Vatican, as in the United States, the laws are not always clear about how long to keep someone alive when they cannot make the decision themselves.

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