Bishops write to UK Health Secretary over plight of Polish Catholic patient

49995666847 78ba397a55 b U.K. health secretary Matt Hancock. | Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Catholic bishops wrote to Britain's Health Secretary on Wednesday, expressing concern about the plight of a Polish patient in a U.K. hospital.

The letter dated Jan. 20 followed a court ruling allowing the withdrawal of food and water from the practicing Catholic man identified only as "RS."

Local media reported on Jan. 18 that doctors had stopped providing life-support treatment to the man, who fell into a coma after suffering a cardiac arrest in November. He is originally from Poland but has lived for years in Britain. 

"The Catholic Church continues to oppose the definition of assisted nutrition and hydration as medical treatment which has now become the basis of medical and legal decisions to withdraw assisted nutrition and hydration from patients," the bishops wrote in their letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

"Providing food and water to very sick patients, even by assisted means, is a basic level of care. This care must be given whenever possible unless it is medically indicated as being overly burdensome or failing to attain its purpose." 

The letter was signed by Bishop John Sherrington, an auxiliary bishop of Westminster with responsibility for life issues at the English and Welsh bishops' conference, and Bishop Mark O'Toole of Plymouth, the patient's local bishop.

The bishops told Hancock: "The recent court cases concerning patient Mr. RS in the care of the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust have shown the level of controversy around this definition as judges have been called to make decisions in the 'best interests' of the patient." 

"We note that Mr. RS had not refused food and fluids nor had he expressed any view about not wanting food and fluids in these circumstances and that there was no evidence that he viewed assisted nutrition and hydration as medical treatment." 

The bishops noted that Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops' conference, appealed on Jan. 19 to his English counterpart Cardinal Vincent Nichols to intervene in the case.

"On his behalf, we write to express our opposition to this definition of medical treatment and to convey the offer of the Polish authorities to assist in the transfer of Mr. RS to Poland for his future care," Sherrington and O'Toole wrote.

"We accept the legal process concerning Mr. RS has been completed. However, we pray for agreement within the family about the treatment and care to be provided and express the desire of the archbishop that Mr. RS be transferred and cared for in Poland."

Gądecki had urged Nichols in a letter sent on Tuesday "to undertake steps towards saving the life of our compatriot."

He wrote that public opinion in Poland had been "shaken" by the judgment by the Court of Protection in London last month that life-support treatment "could be lawfully discontinued."

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

He noted that the man's family was divided over the ruling, 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."

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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, Bishop O'Toole described the court ruling as "very worrying."

In a statement on Jan. 14, he 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 by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford.

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

"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.

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