May 27, 2024

Family splits over fate of unresponsive man in England 

Catholic Church infuriated over decision to allow patient to starve to death

The Catholic Church in England has protested strongly against a decision to withdraw hydration and nutrition from a man who became permanently comatose after a heart attack in November.

Mr RS, a Polish citizen who lived in Britain for many years, has been in a hospital in Plymouth. Doctors there felt that he was completely unresponsive and would have no “quality of life”. If given food and water, he would probably live another five years. Without them, he would die within a few weeks. So, with the agreement of his wife, they applied to withdraw food and water so that he would die. On December 15, the Court of Protection granted their request.

The prognosis for RS was not in dispute. But his wife and his family were at loggerheads over what should be done.

RS was, everyone agrees, a staunch Catholic (although he attended Mass only about once a month) and consistently supported a “pro-life” perspective on abortion and euthanasia. However, he was distant towards a sister, who lives in the UK, and other relatives in Poland, perhaps because he had married a divorcee outside the Catholic Church.

His wife testified that he would not want to live in a comatose state and be a burden to others; his family said that he would oppose the course of action recommended by the Court of Protection because of his Catholic beliefs.

English law allows doctors to withdraw nutrition and hydration if it is deemed to be in the “best interests” of a patient. In RS’s case, Mr Justice Cohen found that the wife’s testimony was more persuasive and ruled that the course that he would want to be taken is the course which in this case is that which is in his best interests.”

In their letter to the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, Catholic bishops stated: ‘

“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. 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 director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, David Albert Jones, wrote a lengthy comment on the case of RS. He pointed out that “The grave danger of this judgement 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.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge    

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