Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's the Catholic Position on Feeding Tubes?

The Catholic Church is clearly and unambiguously opposed to euthanasia, the intentional ending of life (through an act or refusal to act) as an attempt to alleviate suffering.  But at the same time, there are clear limits to what one ought to do to preserve life.  We should respect and love life, but we shouldn't cling to it madly, nor enter death's door kicking and screaming.  There's a huge theoretical difference between accepting death when your time has come, and assisted suicide through the deprivation of feeding tubes.

The beginning premise is this: it is fundamentally immoral and unchristian to refuse to give food to the hungry, and water to the needy.  It violates even the most basic test Christ forewarns of at the Last Judgment (see Matthew 25:35 and 25:42), and it makes no difference whether the food and drink are administered artificially or not.  The general rule of thumb for feeding tubes, to separate acceptable (and praiseworthy) acts of facing one's own death bravely, and morally unacceptable acts of ending one's own (or another's) life, even for "therapeutic" reasons is this: the cause of death must be the disease itself, rather than the deprivation of food and water.

Here are some hypotheticals:
  • In "a situation where a person is actively dying, one’s death being imminent (presumably within a few days)," is it obligatory to provide nutrition and hydration, even artificially?
  • "What if it is possible that a person may live indefinitely but need to be artificially fed?"
  •  "What if, after a feeding tube is placed, the nutrition and hydration is not being assimilated into the person’s body?"
  • "What if, after a feeding tube is placed, grave medical complications arise because of the presence of the feeding tube?"
 Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted raises, and answers, these questions skillfully here (see sections 9-12).   The entire article is succinct and very readable, which is unusual on this subject.  Bishop Olmsted wisely, in my opinion, limits himself merely to the question of "feeding tubes," without addressing other end-of-life decisions.  Trying to tackle the whole beast of euthanasia and end-of-life judgments can be hard: the good Bishop of Phoenix has painted a clear piece of the puzzle.

2 comments:

  1. A quick question, if you have further insight. In St. Thomas More's Utopia, he seems to endorse a terminally ill person refusing food until they die. Indeed, if I was reading it correctly, he was almost encouraging it.

    I don't think that St. Thomas More has all the answers, but is there a good way to reconcile this, if Church teaching on the subject hasn't changed? Or is this just an area where he was inserting some of his own philosophy?

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  2. I haven't read the book (I know, I know!), but I do know that it seems to all appearances that St. Thomas More wasn't actually promoting or defending his "Utopian" ideals: he was just trying to get people to imagine a society structured very differently than our own. There are female priests, divorce, and euthanasia.

    On at least one of these issues, divorce, the world knows his true position quite well. From his non-fiction writing, we know him to be a serious Catholic, and I think it's safe to say he wasn't secretly harboring heretic ideas. He was just imagining what a society might be like where that occurred.

    During the days of the Soviet Union, there was a statue constructed to St. Thomas More at the Kremlin (which is bizarre to no end), because of some of his more pre-Marx socialist ideas from Utopia (like the dissolution of private property).

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