updated 3/12/2005 4:43:51 PM ET 2005-03-12T21:43:51

Removing the feeding tube from a brain-damaged Florida woman would be “a pitiless way to kill,” the Vatican’s point man on bioethical issues said Friday, breaking what he called the church’s usual practice of not weighing in on individual cases.

The fate of Terri Schiavo, who doctors say is in a persistent vegetative state, has galvanized many in the United States. Her husband contends his wife has said she would not want to be kept alive artificially, while her parents have battled his efforts to have the tube removed.

A court order requires removal of the feeding tube next Friday. A judge ordered that the feedings be stopped after finding “clear and convincing” evidence that she would not want to be kept alive in her current state.

Monsignor Elio Sgreccia said on Vatican Radio that the Holy See’s Pontifical Academy for Life generally does not intervene in specific cases, but Schiavo’s case “goes beyond the individual situation because of its exemplary character.”

“Silence in this case would be able to be interpreted as approval, with consequences that would go widely beyond the given case,” Sgreccia said.

“By any decent count, Mrs. Terri Schiavo can be considered a living human being, deprived of full conscience, whose legal rights must be recognized, respected and defended. The removal of the feeding tube from this person, in these conditions, can be considered direct euthanasia.

“As far as we’re concerned, impeding someone access to food and water represents a pitiless way to kill that person,” Sgreccia said.

Vatican teaching holds that “extraordinary” means of care are not required but that “ordinary means,” including providing nutrition and aiding respiration, must be provided.

Sgreccia said Schiavo’s feeding tube “can’t be considered extraordinary means” and “not even a therapeutic means. It is an integral part of the means in which Mrs. Terri Schiavo can be fed and hydrated.”

Last month, Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, appealed for Schiavo to remain on life support.

Schiavo suffered brain damage in 1990 after her heart stopped because of a chemical imbalance believed to have been brought on by an eating disorder.

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