Allowing to Die II

Speaking last month to an international congress of physicians and ethicists in Rome, Pope John Paul II declared that the “administration of food and water, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act.” He added that providing hydration and nutrition is “in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such, morally obligatory.” The pope was speaking about patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) who, because of severe brain damage, are not conscious and cannot ingest food or water naturally.

John Paul has been a vigilant defender of the dignity of human life in all its stages, and he was no doubt attempting to strengthen safeguards against euthanasia and any rush to abandon PVS patients. It is unlikely, however, that his remarks will serve that purpose. Unfortunately, the pope’s statement promises to make decisions for families caring for PVS patients even more difficult. It also appears to turn centuries of Catholic moral teaching on its head. Strangely, the pope’s statement seems at odds with his own earlier writing, and comes curiously close to endorsing the notion of vitalism, a philosophy that he has firmly rejected in the past. In Evangelium vitae, John Paul wrote that “Certainly the life of the body in its earthly state is not an absolute good for the believer, especially as he may be asked to give up his life for the greater...

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