WASHINGTON—The full body of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will take into account the most recent Catholic teaching on care for the chronically ill and dying when they vote on a proposed revision of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services at their Nov. 16-19 general assembly in Baltimore. The proposed revision states more definitively the moral obligation to provide medically assisted nutrition and hydration to patients in a “persistent vegetative state.”
The revision draws from Pope John Paul II’s March 2004 Address to the Participants in the International Congress on “Life- Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas” and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s August 2007 Responses to Certain Questions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Concerning Artificial Nutrition and Hydration. The current Ethical and Religious Directives, which predate both documents, reference only the conclusions of “some state Catholic conferences, individual bishops, and the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities.”
“It would be useful to update the Ethical and Religious Directives by inclusion of references to these authoritative documents as well as by incorporation of some of their language and distinctions,” said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. “It is particularly appropriate to do so since the recent clarifications by the Holy See have rendered untenable certain positions that have been defended by some Catholic ethicists.”
The current Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services says, “There should be a presumption in favor of providing nutrition and hydration to all patients, including patients who require medically assisted nutrition and hydration, as long as this is of sufficient benefit to outweigh the burdens involved to the patient.” Along with other changes, the proposed revision says, “As a general rule, there is an obligation to provide patients with food and water, including medically assisted nutrition and hydration for those who cannot take food orally. This obligation extends to patients in chronic conditions (e.g., the ‘persistent vegetative state’) who can reasonably be expected to live indefinitely if given such care.”
To be adopted, the proposed revision must be approved by a majority of bishops present and voting at the November meeting. The revision has been undertaken with the collaboration of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities and in consultation with the Task Force on Health Care Issues, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Medical Association, the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.