[Cross-posted from blog.bioethics.net]
The Vatican has released a ruling clarifying the Catholic position on food and hydration to patients in persistent vegetative states who are not expected to recover from their injuries.
The Vatican said that patients in a vegetative state, with few exceptions, have a moral right to artificial food and hydration. â€œIn this way suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented,â€ according to a statement released by the Vatican and approved by Pope Benedict XVI.
Nutrition and hydration support are not obligatory when such care becomes â€œexcessively burdensomeâ€ or when patients cannot assimilate food and liquids â€œso that their provision becomes altogether useless,â€ the Vaticanâ€™s Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith wrote in a statement.
At the basis of the ruling is the moral belief that tube-feeding those near death is an "ordinary" state, and that the basic human dignity of the patient means that care should not stop.
The clarification becomes important because although Catholic doctrine does oppose euthanasia, it allows for the cessation of heroic, futile (extraordinary, and potentially painful) efforts. At question, then, has been whether or not tube-nourishment constitutes extraordinary or heroic efforts that are therefore optional under Catholic doctrine.
Ultimately, this affects more than "just" Catholics - many hospitals around the world are run by Catholic organizations who will feel bound by the ruling, and will enforce the decisions stemming from it regardless of whether or not the patient themself is Catholic.