FEEDING TUBES: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Pope condemns 'euthanasia by omission'
, April 24, 2004
In a blunt and uncompromising statement, Pope John Paul II has condemned the removal of feeding tubes from patients in a persistent vegetative state, calling it "genuine euthanasia by omission".
The issues of removing feeding tubes has sparked several court battles in Australia, the United States and elsewhere.
In a highly publicised case in Tampa, Florida, the husband of a severely brain-damaged woman, Terri Schiavo, has been seeking to have his wife's feeding tube removed so that she can die.
However, the Pope has argued that providing food and water to such patients should be considered as "morally obligatory".March conference
The Pope was speaking on March 20 to a Vatican conference on the ethical dilemmas of dealing with incapacitated patients. The conference was organised by the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and the Pontifical Academy for Life, a Vatican advisory body.
He asserted: "A man, even if he is gravely ill or limited in the exercise of his higher functions, is and always will be a man; he will never become a 'vegetable' or an 'animal'...
"The sick person, in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or his natural end, still has the right to basic health care and to the prevention of complications related to his confinement to bed.
"He also has the right to appropriate rehabilitative care and to be monitored for clinical signs of eventual recovery."
The Pope acknowledged that, statistically speaking, the recovery of patients is increasingly more difficult as the condition of vegetative state is prolonged over time.
However, he said: "We must neither forget nor underestimate that there are well-documented cases of at least partial recovery, even after many years. We can thus state that medical science, up till now, is still unable to predict with certainty who, among patients in this condition, will recover and who will not."
Since no one knows when a patient in a vegetative state might awaken, "the evaluation of the probability, founded on diminishing hope of recovery after the vegetative state has lasted for more than a year, cannot ethically justify the abandonment or interruption of minimal care for the patient, including food and water", he said.
"Death by starvation or thirst is, in fact, the only possible outcome as a result of their withdrawal. In this sense it ends up becoming, if done knowingly and deliberately, genuine euthanasia by omission."
Similarly, he also rejected "quality of life" arguments as justifications for letting incapacitated patients die of hunger or thirst.
Considerations about "quality of life", he warned, are often dictated by psychological, social and economic pressures. But these could not take precedence over "the value of the fundamental good which we are trying to protect, that of human life."
Basing decisions regarding a person's life on someone else's evaluation of its quality, he asserted, was liable to undermine human dignity "by introducing into social relations a discriminatory and eugenic principle."
Even the term "vegetative", the Pope warned, risked demeaning the value and personal dignity of incapacitated patients.
He said: "This term, even when confined to the clinical context, is certainly not the most felicitous when applied to human beings."
John Paul has consistently opposed euthanasia, which the Vatican defines as "an action or omission which, by its very nature and intention, brings about death to end pain".
Such an act, says the Pope, is always "a serious violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person."
In his comments to the Vatican conference, he said that the families of incapacitated patients "cannot be left alone with their heavy human, psychological and financial burden"
Society, he said, must allot sufficient resources, not only to seek cures, but also to give financial support and home assistance for families when patients were moved back home.
Proper care for these patients and their families, the Pope stressed, entailed doctors, medical staff and volunteers assuring the families concerned that they were "there as allies in this struggle with them".
"The participation of volunteers," he said, "represents a basic support to enable the family to break out of its isolation and to help it to realise that it is a precious and not a forsaken part of the social fabric."