Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 8, 2007
Withholding water and nutrition means murder
My Glass is Half Full
By MARK PICKUP
On Oct. 1, the Mental Capacity Act came into force in England and Wales. This nasty piece of legislation allows people to write a living will instructing doctors not to save them if they become incapacitated. According to London's Daily Mail newspaper, "Doctors who refuse to carry out such instructions risk prosecution for assault and a possible jail term."
The Islamic Medical Association took the courageous and principled stand by urging its members to defy the act.
A spokesman responded by saying that the Medical Capacity Act would require "food and water to be denied to mentally incapacitated, non-dying persons." He said, "We oppose strongly any court decision or power of attorney used to justify participation in starving or dehydrating anyone to death."
A horrible death
We must understand that withholding nutrition and hydration is a horrible way to die. In 2005, cognitively and physically disabled American Terri Schiavo was killed in this manner by a Florida court decree.
Three months after her death, my wife and I had supper with Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. Mary could not so much as moisten her daughter's cracked and bleeding lips with an ice cube or a burly Pinnellas county police officer in the room would have arrested her on the spot. Terri would have died without her mother.
Dr. Paul Byrne, of Saint Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, Conn., has called it a "very undignified and inhumane death." He describes it this way:
"The patient's mouth dries out and becomes coated with thick material. Lips become parched and cracked. The tongue swells and might crack. The eyes sink back into their sockets. The lining of the nose may crack and bleed. The skin becomes loose, dry and scaly. The urine concentrates, then decreases until there is no urine.
Major organs fail
"The stomach lining dries, causing dry heaves. The respiratory tract dries out, giving rise to thick secretions that could plug the lungs and may cause death. Eventually, major organs fail, including the lungs, heart and brain."
This is what the parents of Terri Schiavo were forced to watch, despite the fact that Terri left no advanced directive requesting such abusive treatment.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops later asked the Vatican for clarification on whether administration of food and water to a patient in a "vegetative state" is morally obligatory except when they cannot be assimilated by a patient's body or cannot be administered without causing significant physical discomfort.
This puzzled me because the result of withholding food and water from a patient is death, which is a form of euthanasia: The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear in its condemnation of it (2277). The issue of burdensome treatments to a patient is addressed in nos. 2278 and 2279. Further, Pope John Paul II stated in a 2004 address to an International Congress on Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State,
"The sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end, still has the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.). . . . I should like particularly to underline how the administration of food and water, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act."
On Sept. 14, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the Vatican's highest theological body - reaffirmed what Pope John Paul said. Not only did they say it is morally obligatory to give food and water unless the patient is unable to assimilate them, but this obligation does not change if the patient has no chance of recovery.
This is murder
From my perspective, the decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addresses human motivation and intent. Regardless of medical subtleties, subterfuge, or clever bioethical arguments, death must never be the intent of a patient's fate: that constitutes murder.
This reaffirms for me that no matter how far my aggressive, degenerative multiple sclerosis goes, my Church and Catholic health care providers (or Muslim health care providers for that matter) will stand for my inherent human dignity and my right to proper, caring and humane medical care. They will not let my humanity be diminished or stripped from me. Or to use the words of Pope John Paul, "A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his higher functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a "vegetable" or an "animal."
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