Here is another discussion about the end of life for my Catholic friends who are trying to decide whether to support SB 303.
Life, however, is not an absolute good.
Treatment and life support
Questions about the use of medical treatments and life-support systems are distinct from—and yet often associated with—euthanasia. The scriptural insights can be very helpful with these issues, even if they cannot give details. As good stewards, we believe that death is not the final word, that life is not an absolute good. Therefore, we do not have to keep someone alive “at all costs.”
The Catholic tradition helps with the details, providing this guidance: ordinary means must be used; extraordinary means are optional. Ordinary means are medicines or treatments that offer reasonable hope of benefit and can be used without excessive expense, pain or other inconvenience. Extraordinary means do not offer reasonable hope of benefit or include excessive expense, pain, or other inconvenience. What is important to remember is that “ordinary” and “extraordinary” refer not to the technology but to the treatment in relation to the condition of the patient, that is, to the proportion of benefit and burden the treatment provides the patient (see the Vatican’s Declaration on Euthanasia, #IV, 1980).
Many people remember when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago decided to stop the treatment for his cancer. The treatment had become extraordinary. He did not kill himself by this choice but did stop efforts that prolonged his dying. He allowed death to occur. (This distinction between allowing to die and killing, as in euthanasia or assisted suicide, is of great significance in the Catholic tradition. The rejection of this distinction by several U.S. courts raises serious concerns.)
Within the Catholic Church, debate still surrounds the question of providing medical nourishment through a feeding tube. Let’s look at two positions.
1) “Life must almost always be sustained.” This position holds that the withdrawal of medically assisted nutrition and hydration cannot be ethically justified except in very rare situations. The fundamental idea for this position is the following: Remaining alive is never rightly regarded as a burden because human bodily life is inherently good, not merely instrumental to other goods. Therefore, it is rarely morally right not to provide adequate food and fluids.
This position acknowledges that means of preserving life may be withheld or withdrawn if the means employed is judged either useless or excessively burdensome. The “useless or excessive burden” criteria can be applied to the person who is imminently dying but not to those who are permanently unconscious or to those who require medically assisted nutrition and hydration as a result of something like Lou Gehrig’s or Alzheimer’s disease. Providing these patients with medical nourishment by means of tubes is not useless because it does bring these patients a great benefit: namely, the preservation of their lives.
2) “Life is a fundamental but not absolute good.” This approach rejects euthanasia, judging deliberate killing a violation of human dignity. On the other hand, while it values life as a great and fundamental good, life is not seen as an absolute (as we saw in the section on scriptural foundations) to be sustained in every situation. Accordingly, in some situations, medically assisted nutrition and hydration may be removed.
This position states that the focus on imminent death may be misplaced. Instead we should ask if a disease or condition that will lead to death (a fatal pathology) is present. For example, a patient in a persistent vegetative state cannot eat enough to live and thus will die of that pathology in a short time unless life-prolonging devices are used. Withholding medically assisted hydration and nutrition from a patient in such a state does not cause a new fatal disease or condition. It simply allows an already existing fatal pathology to take its natural course.
Here, then, is a fundamental idea of this position: If a fatal condition is present, the ethical question we must ask is whether there is a moral obligation to seek to remove or bypass the fatal pathology. But how do we decide either to treat a fatal pathology or to let it take its natural course? Life is a great and fundamental good, a necessary condition for pursuing life’s purposes: happiness, fulfillment, love of God and neighbor.
But does the obligation to prolong life ever cease? Yes, says this view, if prolonging life does not help the person strive for the purposes of life. Pursuing life’s purposes implies some ability to function at the level of reasoning, relating and communicating. If efforts to restore this cognitive-affective function can be judged useless or would result in profound frustration (that is, a severe burden) in pursuing the purposes of life, then the ethical obligation to prolong life is no longer present.
Disagreements in the Church
How are these significantly different positions judged by the Roman Catholic Church? There is no definitive Catholic position regarding these two approaches. Vatican commissions and Catholic bishops’ conferences have come down on both sides of the issue. Likewise, there are Catholic moral theologians on both sides.
Emphasis by underlining is mine. Edited 5/10/13 BBN