on population, reproductive health & ethics

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Pope's Pronouncement on Feeding Tubes Stuns Catholic Hospitals

Statement from Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion in Dying Federation:

On March 16 the Vatican released an opinion that feeding tubes are not medical therapy and cannot be withheld from a permanently unconscious person. And for those who hoped it wasn't official, Pope John Paul II confirmed the position a few days later, announcing that artificial food and water is always "morally obligatory" and removing a feeding tube is "true euthanasia by omission," violating God's law.

The impact is enormous, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The Pope's pronouncement runs counter to written instructions in hundreds of thousands of Advance Directives and the clear wishes of many individuals with no written document. But it may determine whether those wishes get honored at 565 Catholic hospitals in the nation, and by millions of nurses, doctors and hospital workers who follow the Pope's lead.

Catholic healthcare institutions must follow Church doctrine. A document called, "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services" lays out the rules. When a Catholic institution merges with a secular one, terms of the merger usually impose the Directives on the new entity, too. Every state has an Advance Directive law, but not one requires a hospital or doctor to honor a patient's wishes. At most, providers who won't follow an advance directive must give notice and transfer the patient. But the penalties are weak or absent, and patients and family members are usually helpless when wishes go unheeded. Compassion is trying to change that through litigation, in the California case of Margaret Furlong.

Understandably, Catholic hospitals worry the Vatican's position may render them less desirable as community healthcare providers, and some are trying to portray the pronouncement as mere guidance rather than doctrine. Either way, the debate highlights the fact that Catholic doctrine is often murky, with decisions governed by a balance between benefit and burden. Whether a Catholic provider follows an end-of-life wish probably depends most on how its local bishop interprets doctrine.

Because right now, Catholic hospitals answer to their local bishop, not to their patients.

Barbara Coombs Lee is the pre-eminent spokesperson for legalization of aid in dying. She told journalists at the National Press Club that Attorney General John Ashcroft's attempt to nullify Oregon's unique assisted dying law stem from his "personal vendetta." As Chief Petitioner of Oregon Dignity With Dignity Act, Lee knows an "unwarranted attack" when she sees one.

She has been quoted in The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, AARP, CNN, The Washington Post, Readers Digest and Rolling Stone.

To learn more about the following topics, click the links provided.
Furlong case

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Compassion in Dying Stories of Dignity & Choice Edited by Barbra Coombs

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