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Artificial Nutrition and Hydration in Catholic Healthcare: Balancing Tradition, Recent Teaching, and Law

  • TITLE: Artificial Nutrition and Hydration in Catholic Healthcare: Balancing Tradition, Recent Teaching, and Law
  • AUTHOR: Zientek DM.
  • REFERENCE: HEC Forum. 2013 May 4. [Epub ahead of print]
  • YEAR: 2013

Roman Catholics have a long tradition of evaluating medical treatment at the end of life to determine if proposed interventions are proportionate and morally obligatory or  isproportionate and morally optional. There has been significant debate within the Catholic community about whether artificially delivered nutrition and hydration can be appreciated as a medical intervention that may be optional in some situations, or if it should be treated as essentially obligatory in all circumstances. Recent statements from the teaching authority of the church have attempted to clarify this issue, especially for those with a condition known as the persistent vegetative state. I argue that these recent teachings constitute a “general norm” whereby artificial nutrition and hydration are considered obligatory for most patients, but that these documents allow for exception in cases of complication from the means used to deliver nutrition and hydration, progressive illness, or clear refusal of such treatment by patients. While the recent clarifications do not constitute a major deviation from traditional understanding and will rarely conflict with advance directives or legal statutes, there may be rare instances in which remaining faithful to church teaching may conflict with legally enshrined patient prerogatives. Using the Texas Advance Directives Act as an example, I propose ways in which ethics committees can remain faithful to their Roman Catholic identity while respecting patient autonomy and state law pertaining to end of life health care.