Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Vatican Insists Nutrition and Hydration be Provided Even for Comatose Patients

Catholic health care and ethical groups thanked the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for clarifying its stand on artificial nutrition and hydration for patients in a persistent vegetative state in a pair of Sept. 14 documents.

"The Catholic health ministry is grateful for the clarification provided today," said Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, in a Sept. 14 statement.

"Patients in a persistent vegetative state, while making up a very small percent of all patients, pose some of the most challenging and heart-wrenching situations for families and caregivers," she added. "This clarification affirms the church's belief in the value of their lives in spite of the circumstances of their condition."

The Vatican's responses to two questions posed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its commentary on those responses "provide a clear rejection of the claim of certain theologians that the provision of food and water for patients in the persistent vegetative state is not morally obligatory," said the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center in a Sept. 14 statement.

The USCCB questions were prompted by confusion in the U.S. over a 2004 talk by Pope John Paul II in which he said nutrition and hydration, even by artificial means such as feeding tubes, should generally be considered ordinary care and not extraordinary medical treatment.

"The (Vatican) commentary takes pains to note that John Paul II's address stands in conformity with previous tradition, and is not, in any way, an innovation or abandonment of previous teaching," the bioethics center statement said, adding that the commentary's "review of previous (papal and Vatican) statements speaks to the claim of those who have said John Paul II's address was completely unexpected and without precedent."

Sister Carol said the latest Vatican documents make clear that "the provision of artificially administered nutrition and hydration to patients in a vegetative state is morally obligatory except when they cannot be assimilated by the patient's body (and, hence, don't achieve their purpose) or cause significant discomfort."

In addition, she said, "artificially administered nutrition and hydration cannot be discontinued for a patient in a persistent vegetative state even when physicians have determined with reasonable certainty that a patient will never recover consciousness..."

Here's the rest of Nancy Frazier O'Brien's article for Catholic News Service about this humane and much-welcomed announcement.