By Joyce Coronel
PHOENIX (CNS) — Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix issued a new document in September to help Catholics make tough decisions concerning artificially administered nutrition and hydration that are consistent with church teaching.
Titled “Directives for Catholics Concerning Artificially Administered Nutrition and Hydration,” the document specifically addresses providing artificial hydration and nutrition for those facing illness who require artificial assistance.
It comes at a time when the faithful have questions about their obligations vis-a-vis end-of-life issues, said Father John Ehrich, an expert in bioethics who serves on the ethics committee at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.
“People have a desire to be faithful to the teachings of the church and are not always sure if medical institutions are able to help them toward this goal,” he said, adding that priests get a lot of calls from parishioners about such matters.
“Medical professionals are sometimes not well educated in ethics and, more specifically, they are often unsure of the specific ethical teachings of the church,” Father Ehrich said.
Bishop Olmsted’s document addresses questions and confusion about artificial hydration and nutrition that surfaced after the controversial death of Terry Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman whose husband successfully fought for the right to discontinue her feeding tube. Schiavo died March 31, 2005, 13 days after doctors withdrew nutrition and hydration.
A wide array of critics and pro-life activists decried Schiavo’s demise as murder. Bishop Olmsted describes the death as “tragic” in an introductory letter to priests, deacons and religious of the Diocese of Phoenix.
“Etched in our memories are the photos and video images of Terri Schiavo as well as the knowledge of the horrible way in which her life ended,” the bishop wrote. “Terri was not dying and the ultimate reason her life ended was because she was not provided with food and water. She died of dehydration.”
The letter states that Catholics are not obligated to extend their lives, but they are obligated to preserve them. A person is not to do anything — or omit anything — that may hasten death.
“If a person is able to continue living but merely needs the basic necessities of life, then they should be provided to them,” the bishop wrote. “Food and water, nutrition and hydration — even if administered artificially — are basic necessities of life.”
Father Ehrich called attention to the distinction between preserving life and prolonging life.
People have a duty to “avail themselves of the ordinary care which preserves their life,” he said. “Nutrition and hydration is this kind of care, even if administered artificially.”
But that doesn’t mean prolonging life when it’s clear that death is imminent.
“Most people don’t desire to either starve to death or die because of dehydration, but they also do not desire to submit to every possible medical intervention as they approach death,” Father Ehrich said.
“A person should die because of their illness or the illnesses that are present, not because they were denied nutrition and hydration,” he said. The directives do not represent new teaching, but are rather the application of existing church teaching to specific circumstances.
The directives state that “Catholics are to be provided nutrition and hydration so long as that nutrition and hydration continue to be assimilated into the person’s body and do not contribute to further grave complications or burdens.” In cases in which a person is actively dying or death is imminent, artificial nutrition and hydration “would be unnecessary and unduly burdensome” and not obligatory.
“The faithful should seek to have a well-formed conscience which can only be attained if they know the definitive teaching of the church. This is the starting point,” Father Ehrich said, suggesting that people could give a copy of the bishop’s directives to their doctor or nurse and tell them that they want to make sure that their loved one is treated according to those principles.
“The only way to be sure of doing the right thing is to follow the teachings of the church in this area. Most people act in good faith, but often decisions of this kind are made based upon emotions or upon a desire to end a loved one’s suffering,” Father Ehrich said. “This reality is understandable, but it also can lead to errors of judgment.”
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