Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 3, 2003
Honour all of life all of the time
The discussion over whether to withdraw a feeding tube from Terry Schiavo, the severely disabled Florida woman who has been unable to feed herself for the last 13 years, has focused mainly on whether she was correctly diagnosed as being in "a persistent vegetative state."
Such a limited discussion falsely implies that if the diagnosis were correct, her life was no better than that of a vegetable. It also implies that if the diagnosis were correct, it would be morally acceptable to withdraw her feeding tube.
To accept this argument is to accept the next step on the slippery slope to euthanasia. If it were morally permissible to withdraw Schiavo's feeding tube and thus allow her to starve to death over a period of, say two weeks, it would seem more humane simply to give her a needle and put her to death immediately.
So if you accept the morality of withdrawing feeding tubes, you may well agree that active euthanasia is even better.
However, a diagnosis of a person being in a persistent vegetative state is, in principle, unverifiable. You will never know if it is true, because the only person who knows with certainty is unable to communicate.
Also, such diagnoses are notoriously unreliable. One 1996 study found that 43 per cent of patients who had been so described were later found to have been wrongly diagnosed.
But even if such a diagnosis were correct, it would still be wrong to withdraw a person's feeding tube.
There is always an obligation to provide some level of care for the severely disabled, even if they are unaware of that care. To withdraw a feeding tube belies an intention to kill the person. And it is never right to kill the innocent - whether it be by shooting them or by deliberately starving them to death.
Human bodily life is always good and deserving of dignified care. We should always strive to care for our dying or disabled loved ones even if it seems to us that their life is not worth living.
Caring for a person in need shows respect for their dignity. Refusing to provide such care is to fail to respect the dignity of the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters.
In reference to providing feeding tubes to the dying and disabled, the U.S. bishops have taught: "There should be a presumption in favour of providing nutrition and hydration to all patients, including patients who require medically assisted nutrition and hydration, as long as this is of sufficient benefit to outweigh the burdens involved to the patient."
This hints at the fact that there are limits to the care an individual, family or society as a whole can reasonably be expected to provide for a person. There is an obligation to do what one reasonably can do to sustain a person's life. The obligation is not to indefinitely provide the highest possible level of care, thus bankrupting one's family or leaving others to whom one has an obligation without care.
The case of Terri Schiavo did not meet such criteria. Caring for her does not mean neglecting the care of others. Her husband had won a US$1.3-million lawsuit to give him the resources to pay for her care.
She was being cared for in a hospice - not in a hospital intensive care unit. Providing care for her did not involve denying care to others who might have a better chance of survival or recovering their full faculties.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida legislatures did themselves proud by overruling a court order that her feeding tube be withdrawn.
An innocent woman's life has been spared - at least for now - and the world has seen a witness to the fact that the lives of severely disabled are of immeasurable value and not to be callously disposed of.
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