Food and Water for Life

fr. earlIt’s amazing what people can be tricked into at the end of their life or when considering the end of the life of one of their loved ones. Did you know that food and water are morally necessary to sustain life, even if they have to be given artificially? Fr. Earl Fernandes, Dean and Associate Professor of Moral Theology at the Athenaeum of Ohio, responds to an inquirer on the subject in this his June column for The Catholic Telegraph.

Dear Father, It’s been ten years since Terry Schiavo died and I am still confused about Church teaching on artificial nutrition hydration. I go to the hospital or look at living will forms and there is a box that says, “I do not want artificially-administered nutrition and hydration.” As a Catholic can I check that box?

Dear Reader, my advice to you would be not to check that box. The issue of administering nutrition and hydration to a person in a state of persistent unconsciousness was a hotly-debated issue among moral theologians. In the early 1990s, the bishops of Pennsylvania thought that nutrition and hydration for such patients constituted ordinary “treatment” and was obligatory; it was beneficial to the patient and did not impose a great burden on the patient. Bishops in Texas disagreed. The Bishops Conference at that time took a position that there ought to be a presumption in favor of giving a person in such a condition nutrition and hydration. Some people believe that the quality of life for such persons is too low and that they ought not to be given food and water; a Catholic ought to reject this way of thinking. Pope Francis has called these quality of life arguments a “lie.” However, others believed that the “treatment” merely prolonged life and that a person ought to be able to pursue spiritual goods including heaven. The question remained disputed.

On March 20, 2004, John Paul II gave an address to the International Congress on Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative States. In that speech he said: “The sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end, still has the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.), and to the prevention of complications related to his confinement to bed.” Importantly, he spoke of nutrition and hydration as basic health care.

He continued: “I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.”

Continue reading Food and Water for Life

Feature photo, Water Drops, courtesy of Creative Commons/Flickr.

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