A Catholic bioethics expert weighs in on the case of Rom Houben, which is quickly becoming one of my all-time most read posts. In an interview with Catholic News Agency, John Haas, President of the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center suggests the case shows the wisdom of Catholic teaching on the duty to provide sustenance for those believed to be comatose.
Houben’s mistaken diagnosis was a “perfect example” of why artificial nutrition and hydration should be continued, Haas said.
He reported that the U.S. Catholic bishops last week passed a modified version of Directive 58 of the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) for Catholic healthcare. This directive spoke of “the moral obligation to continue to provide hydration and nutrition to patients in a compromised state,” Haas said.
“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,” the ERD read.
“The bishops have always held to that position,” Haas explained, but some other Catholic voices have not.
In 2004, Haas noted, Pope John Paul II delivered an allocution in which he again said it is necessary to provide hydration and nutrition as long as it is “achieving its end” of nurturing the body.
Houben’s recovery, he said, would seem to be “a case where the Church’s position was actually ahead of the curve.”
Asked about Dr. Laureys’ comments about the difficulty of a patient permanently labeled as “unconscious,” Haas said he hoped health care providers would not have negative attitudes towards such patients.
However, he noted that Pope John Paul II described how “regrettable” it was that the medical term for such patients was “persistent vegetative state.”
Some doctors’ comments and medical terminologies “do tend to devalue and demean these people, which is really unfortunate.”
He said the case could help confirm the position of those who oppose physician-assisted suicide, but where the practice is legalized the patients are generally required to be conscious and responsive.
However, Houben’s case would be relevant to those with advanced medical directives who say they want artificial hydration and nutrition removed if they are unconscious and unlikely ever to wake.
The Catholic tradition holds that hydration and nutrition cannot be removed if a person will die of dehydration and starvation, Haas reiterated.
I’m not sure that CNA should have let this last statement stand. I think what the Church is teaching goes beyond small “t” tradition–I’m not sure where JPII’s ‘allocution’ falls. I’m sure one of you will correct me on that, if I’m wrong. I’d also go one further than Mr. Haas to say that–as we have seen time and again (contraceptives, artificial insemination, stem cell research)–the Church is always ahead of the curve. And over at The American Catholic blog, in an article with a wonderfully complete title, Dave Hartline agrees with me.