The Diocese of Rochester has issued the following statement on end-of-life issues:
On March 20, 2004, Pope John Paul II commented on the care and treatment of a very particular group of medical patients. Commonly referred to as living in a persistent or permanent “vegetative state,” such people suffer from very low levels of neurological functioning. In his statement, Pope John Paul II said, “‚Ä¶the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory‚Ä¶”
This statement has generated considerable discussion among moral theologians, leaders of Catholic health care institutions, medical practitioners and individuals. Some have asked about the relation of Pope John Paul’s statement to the strong moral consensus that has emerged over the past 50 years regarding the refusal of treatments which are not likely to benefit or assist in the recovery of medical patients. This moral consensus is expressed in a statement of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Discontinuing of medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘overzealous’ treatment (2278).”
In understanding the recent statement by Pope John Paul II it is important to note that he refers only to a limited category of patients: those patients living in a PVS who do not also suffer from medical conditions likely to result in their imminent death. His remarks do not refer to individuals, medically competent or not, who may face decisions involving the refusal of treatments which are not likely to result in benefit or healing for them.
The statement by Pope John Paul II was issued “in principle” and does not offer a medical directive about the care of any individual patient.
Catholic health care institutions in the United States will continue to honor the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Fourth Edition issued by the NCCB/USCC, June 15, 2001 as the meaning and implications of the Pope’s statement are further discerned in the months ahead.