Friday, January 29, 2010

Artificial Nutrition and Hydration Becomes "Obligatory."

Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion & Choices, has an article today at their site about how the Catholic Church came to change their policy on artificial nutrition and hydration last November.

Coombs Lee explains that the conservative Pope worked to enforced a strong hierarchical hand on the health care decisions of society - not just Catholic society because the Catholic church is the second largest provider of health care in the US.

At 624 hospitals in the country, your advance directive or living will wishes will not be honored:

Extreme pro-life Catholics, however, argued that food and water, even artificially administered, are ordinary and basic, and sustaining life itself of any quality is fundamentally beneficial. Pope John Paul II fostered the ascendancy of the pro-life movement within the Church.

Prompted by The Terri Schiavo case, the Pope sided with the picketers outside Ms. Schiavo’s hospice room, declaring that tube-feeding patients in a permanent vegetative state “always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act” and should “be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate.”

Did the pope’s guidelines allow for the patient’s view of benefits and burdens? Some ethicists still thought yes, but a September, 2007 response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, formerly called the Office of the Inquisition), said:

No. A patient in a ‘permanent vegetative state’ is a person with fundamental human dignity and must, therefore, receive ordinary and proportionate care which includes, in principle, the administration of water and food even by artificial means.

Even then some Catholic bioethicists like John Hardt looked for personal choice in the CDF’s use of the phrase, “in principle.” But in November, the Bishops closed the door: feeding tubes are obligatory.

Why did the bishops make a nationwide rule at odds with the beliefs of many devout Catholics, with a tradition of weighing benefits and burdens on an individual basis, and with established medical practice at most Catholic institutions? My own opinion is the Vatican and the Bishops turned to serious enforcement to impose their dogma precisely because Catholic patients and practitioners were not following their extreme pro-life doctrine in private medical decisions.

My friend Dan Maguire, Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, has said,

In Catholicism there are three sources of truth, (or three “magisteria”): the hierarchy, the theologians, and the wisdom and experience of the laity (called in Latin sensus fidelium).

Like a three-legged stool, multiple sources of wisdom have maintained the stability of Catholic wisdom. In the feeding tube decision, I believe the honest observer would see a one-legged stool making all the decisions, and a clear victory for the hardliners.

The moderates have lost the debate, and so have we. The Vatican has cut off the two offending legs of the stool and nullified ethical consideration of individual weighing of burdens and benefits. Cardinal Rigali, chair of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Bishop Lori, chair of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, in stern tones, announced as much:

Even if one judges that such a condition, when prolonged, makes survival itself a burden, such a judgment does not justify removing food and water …

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