Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Dear Father Tharp,
What does the church teach regarding the Terri Schiavo case? I have hear so many different opinions from non-Catholics and CATHOLICS. It seems that Catholics are not united in their beliefs regarding this issue. If you are pro-life, it should be a mortal sin to remove the feeding tube after it has been placed. Is this true?
Name and Hometown withheld

Your question is most timely, indeed. The situation with Mrs. Schiavo was both distressing and disturbing for many reasons. However, given the rate medical technology continues to advance, it is a situation bound to repeat itself. Technology provides the opportunity to prolong life even in the most dire of conditions.

The Church teaches that a patient must accept all treatment that would be considered ordinary given his condition. At the same time, if a particular treatment were deemed extraordinary, then that treatment could be refused with no moral onus attached (CCC #2273-2274). The maintenance of health is the responsibility of each individual person (CCC #2288). Doctors and other medical professions assist in these decisions, giving options for treatment in each case. With such information at his disposal, the patient may give his informed consent to the treatment in question. Informed consent is absolutely essential to making proper moral decisions concerning health care. This leads a new question: how does one assess whether or not a particular treatment is ordinary or extraordinary?

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith gave direction on this matter in 1980. In its Declaration on Euthanasia, the Congregation gave four basic principles for assessing the degree of the means employed. First, the treatment must actually benefit the recipient. Second, the treatment must not introduce undue burden or risk to the recipient relative to the benefit procured. Such burden involves not only the physical well-being but also includes issues of financial and medical resources. Third, when all sufficient remedies of an ordinary type are exhausted, a patient may accept advanced treatments, even those still considered experimental. Fourth, when death is both inevitable and imminent, a patient may refuse those treatments which merely prolong life without addressing the underlying disease. In these cases, ordinary care, e.g. painkillers, is not interrupted. Note that all four principles assume the patient’s informed consent and that his wishes are reasonable, not reflecting a desire for suicide. Based on these principles we can see how everything in medicine, from aspirin to ventilators, could be deemed ordinary or extraordinary dependant upon the condition of the patient in question.

With that said, food and water fall into a different category. Strictly speaking, food and water are not medical treatments: they are basics for sustaining life. When one cannot swallow or feed themselves then a feeding tube, generally speaking, should be placed to facilitate nutrition and hydration. Food and water could be withdrawn if the patient were not benefitting or was being harmed by it. In theory, then, one could remove a feeding tube but only under the conditions I’ve mentioned.

In Terri Schiavo’s case, there was no reason to remove her feeding tube. While severely brain damaged, she could still swallow. There was no evidence of drooling at least from what the media reported. Further, apart from the brain damage, Mrs. Schiavo simply was not dying. She suffered from medical condition which was ending her life. To remove her feeding tube was to deny her what each of us daily takes for granted. Put bluntly, Terri Schiavo was starved to death. I find it hard to imagine that a person, reasonably, would want to go without food or water for fourteen days simply because they needed a feeding tube. Rather than asking what Terri’s wishes were, her guardian should have been asking her doctors what is the proper course of treatment for Terri to live out her days. Despite what many said, starving a woman to death, because putatively this is what she wanted, does not give dignity to death. It merely degrades us all.

In closing, the death of Terri Schiavo saddens me. It reminds me of the situation in ancient Israel when the people demanded a king. Even though God, who brought them forth from Egypt, was supposed to be their king, the people wanted to be like every one else around them. So God gave them exactly what they wanted. King Saul acted exactly like every other king, right down to taxing the people and conscripting their sons for war. Apparently, as a society, we are asking for cruelty to become the norm of law. Just as with Israel before, God may give us exactly what we ask for. I dread to think of what the price tag will be.


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