Polish archbishop asks English cardinal to intervene after ruling to withdraw food and water from Catholic patient

CNA 5fb3095b7a7a2 197967 Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, pictured in Warsaw Feb. 12, 2020. / episkopat.pl.

A Polish archbishop asked an English cardinal on Tuesday to intervene following a U.K. court ruling allowing the withdrawal of food and water from a practicing Catholic patient.

In a letter dated Jan. 19, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops' conference, urged Cardinal Vincent Nichols "to undertake steps towards saving the life of our compatriot."

Local media reported on Jan. 18 that doctors had stopped providing life-support treatment to the middle-aged Catholic man, identified only as "RS," who fell into a coma after suffering brain damage. He is originally from Poland but lives in England. 

Gądecki wrote in his letter to the archbishop of Westminster that public opinion in Poland had been "shaken" by the ruling last month that life-support treatment "could be lawfully discontinued."

"In fact, he was sentenced to death by starvation," the archbishop commented.

A spokesman for the cardinal confirmed on Tuesday that Nichols had received the letter and shared it with "those with responsibilities in this area."

He noted that the man's family was divided over the ruling issued by the Court of Protection in London, leading some family members to seek to challenge the court's decision, without success, at the Court of Appeal and the European Court of Human Rights. 

"The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has refused their complaint, which allows the hospital to continue the procedure to deprive this man of his life," Gądecki said.

"The authorities of our country assured that they would cover the costs of treatment and transport. The British court does not agree to transport the patient as the journey may be life-threatening."

The archbishop of Poznań cited a passage in St. John Paul II's encyclical "Evangelium vitae," in which the Polish pope spoke of a "conspiracy against life" that not only harmed individuals but also "relations between peoples and states."

He concluded: "I turn to Your Eminence -- as the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales -- asking for your help in this difficult matter and to undertake steps towards saving the life of our compatriot."

Earlier this month, an English bishop described the ruling as "very worrying."

In a statement on Jan. 14, Bishop Mark O'Toole of Plymouth said: "My prayers are with the patient, his wife and family, and for all those involved in his care." 

"The decision of the court to allow for the withdrawal of hydration and nutrition is very worrying. That it is deemed to be in the best interests of the patient more so." 

"Providing food and water to very sick patients -- even if by artificial means -- is a basic level of care. This is care that we must strive to give whenever possible."

Alongside his statement, O'Toole included a link to a press release and briefing paper on the case by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford.

Assessing the judges' moral reasoning, David Albert Jones, the center's director, said that the judgment set "a very worrying precedent."

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"The grave danger of this judgment is that committed Catholics and those who hold a similar view about the human significance of food and drink may be starved and dehydrated to death against their will," he wrote.

This report has been updated to include the comment from a spokesman for Cardinal Nichols.

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