Press misrepresents Catholic teaching on end-of-life issues: ethicists

Two prominent Catholic ethicists say the media portrayals of Church teaching on end-of-life issues, surrounding the Terri Schiavo case, are often inaccurate and misleading, reported the Culture of Life Foundation in their most recent publication.

The two ethicists underlined that the Church makes a distinction between ordinary care, which is always required, and extraordinary care.

"The Church teaches that we have a moral obligation to support life," said Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"That obligation has limits. People talk about ordinary and extraordinary means. That just means that when the efforts to sustain life start doing more harm than good to the patient the moral obligation ceases to apply. Even then you should never abandon a patient and never deny them the basic care owed to everyone because of their human dignity," he told the Culture of Life Foundation.

In speaking about extraordinary care, Fr. Thomas Williams cited Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life. "For treatment to be considered extraordinary, death must be 'imminent and inevitable' and the treatment would result in 'precarious and burdensome prolongation of life,'" he explained.

The dean of the theology department of Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University offered the example of a cancer victim who, after several rounds of treatment, has found chemotherapy to be ineffective and foregoes the treatment in order to avoid its side effects.

While both ethicists said in some instances it could be extremely difficult to determine the difference between extraordinary and ordinary care and that in such instances people must follow their conscience, both men said the Schiavo case is clear-cut.

However, a recent article in the Washington Post painted the Pope’s March 2004 comment that food and water must always be considered basic care as contrary to Catholic teaching. The Post journalist based his argument on the writings of two 16th-century Spanish theologians, Francisco de Vitoria and Domingo Banez.

Both ethicists pointed out to the Culture of Life Foundation the weaknesses in the Post article. "What they said does not mean that one can refuse to consume food for any length of time or refuse food that would save one's life,” said Fr. Williams. “What they mean is that if you are dying and the food would make you sick to your stomach or you would die anyway, you can refuse the food," he explained.

Doerflinger said the article failed to bring up the many statements calling food and water basic care that preceded the Pope's address, including statements by the U.S. bishops.

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