Catholic bishops have expanded the category of patients who should be given food and water. The Chicago Tribune reports they “have decided that it is not permissible to remove a feeding tube from someone who is unconscious but not dying, except in a few circumstances.” In other words, it was wrong to remove a feeding tube from Terri Schaivo and would be wrong to do the same for other people in a persistent vegetative state.
According to Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, the idea is that food and water, even when provided by medical means, is basic and humane care, not medical intervention. It’s the same as keeping someone clean or clipping toenails—care that everyone deserves.
The most significant repercussion of the decision isn’t necessarily it’s affect on individual Catholics. Those who agree with the guidelines will probably follow them, while those who don’t won’t. Instead, the Catholic church’s network of hospitals and other health care facilities will have to follow them, meaning non-Catholic patients in those facilities will too.
While the Trib asserts that this is controversial (“some bioethicists are skeptical”), it seems that the guidelines may only be difficult to accept for families with loved ones in a persistent vegetative state in which basic care is all that is needed to sustain life. I can’t image that too many people are in such a condition.
On the other hand, the ruling provides plenty of exceptions. Someone dying of an underlying disease may refuse food and water. If the feeding causes discomfort, such as when an infection develops due to a feeding tube, it may be refused. And patients can forego feeding if they find it burdensome.
Finding the right balance between the requirement to provide food and water and the need to allow death to occur is tricky. There are rarely obviously right and wrong answers. But it helps to have thought through these issues in advance, to have talked with family members about it, and to have pastors who have dealt with these issues before.