July 28, 2006

Be Our Guest / Dr. Hans Geisler

We have a moral obligation to give hydration, nutrition to the permanently unconscious

I am afraid that Dan Conway, in his July 7 editorial in The Criterion, mistakenly applauded Father Michael Place’s presentation concerning what Father Place described as a nuanced approach to the provision of hydration and nutrition to persons in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS).

It should be noted first that Pope John Paul II, in his allocution given in March 2004, decried the use of the term PVS. He pointed out that all human beings have an innate dignity as children of God and, therefore, no human should be referred to as being a vegetable.

Secondly, the pope stated that the provision of nutrition and hydration, even by means of a feeding tube, is morally obligatory as long as the patient is not terminal and can absorb the nutrition and hydration. Father Place is wrong when he describes the giving of hydration and nutrition as possibly burdensome.

Assuredly, there is a theoretical possibility of this being true. However, food and water can be administered through a feeding tube even at home by someone minimally trained. The administration of fluids through a feeding tube is not in the realm of rocket science.

Many families have been trained in the procedure, and a medical or nursing degree is not required.

The pope’s statement agreed with that of the Pennsylvania bishops made on Jan 14, 1992, when they wrote: “As a general conclusion, in almost every instance, there is an obligation to continue supplying nutrition and hydration to the unconscious patient. There are situations in which this is not the case [e.g., when the patient can no longer assimilate the food and its provision is hence useless], but these are exceptions and should not be made into the rule.”

This is also the opinion of the Pro-Life Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (Committee for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Nutrition and Hydration: Moral and Pastoral Reflections,” 1992, Washington, D.C.).

Moreover, Germain Grisez, an eminent Catholic moral theologian, in his work, Difficult Moral Questions (Franciscan Press, Quincy, Ill., 1997) eerily presaged the Terri Schiavo case when he wrote: “Life sustaining care for severely handicapped [persons] does have a human and Christian significance, in addition to the one it would derive from the inherent goodness of their lives. This additional significance is … profoundly real, just as is the significance of [a husband’s faithfulness to a permanently unconscious] wife, which continues to benefit not only the person being cared for but the one giving care.”

Contrary to Father Place’s opinion, the pope, in the person of Pope John Paul II, and the magisterium of the Church have arrived at a conclusion concerning the provision of hydration and nutrition to the permanently unconscious as long as they are able to absorb what they are given.
Their conclusion is that it is morally obligatory to do so.

(Dr. Hans Geisler, a retired oncologist/ gynecologist, is a member of the archdiocesan Pro-Life Activities Advisory Committee. He is also a member of St. Luke Parish in Indianapolis.) †

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