Bishop Olmsted on End-of-Life Issues

I noticed Phoenix bishop Thomas Olmsted’s Directives for Catholics Concerning Artificially Administered Nutrition and Hydration. I was pleased to see the recognition of the body’s natural shutdown during the dying process, the end of the body digesting food and processing liquids (section 9).

And yet, the identification of the “person” with the “body” may continue to blur the issue:

What if it is possible that a person may live indefinitely but need to be artificially fed? Then he or she must be provided nutrition and hydration even artificially. In this situation to deny one nutrition and hydration would hasten one’s death and would be immoral. In short, a person should die because of one’s illness, not because of a lack of nutrition and hydration.

Is a living body with a dead brain still a person? Does the essence of what makes a human being a person (as opposed to a simple animal) contained within the body processes that are identical to those of, say, cats, frogs, squid, or worms? The way the bishop words his document, I would agree: a person must always be nourished. But is he making the distinctions that we need to make?

A side question for the health insurance debate: do the insurance companies engaged for church employees support all these directives? And if they don’t, are the administrators involved cooperating with evil?

That said, it’s good to see a bishop taking initiative when there’s not some newsworthy life-hanging-in-the-balance situation afoot. This is when pastoral theology works: when discernment can take a proper course with prayer and thought.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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3 Responses to Bishop Olmsted on End-of-Life Issues

  1. Anna says:

    The identification of a “human person” with a “living body” is a true one: that’s the only way *to* identify a human person (i.e. that’s why you instantly know a human is a person and a frog is not – one has a person body and the other has a frog body). As long as the soul still animates the body, it is rather irrelevant to ask how much brain function is there as it is the union of body and soul that makes a human being a person. The recent life and death of anencephalic Baby Faith Hope is a good case in point. Otherwise, one ends up where Peter Singer has: children up to about three years old are “less human” than apes b/c apes have superior reasoning abilities.
    As to the insurance point, I don’t know what their usual policies are, but I imagine they are often saved the trouble of deciding since hospital “ethics committees” usually refuse to give anything they consider futile care. Not futile in the sense that Bishop Olmstead discusses when someone is near death (i.e. the care isn’t accomplishing its end, for example, the body is shutting down and so food provides no nutrition), but futile in that a person won’t have a certain “quality of life” that the committee deems necessary.

  2. Harry says:

    Anna, let me tell you how insurance policies work.

    Nearly all of them include annual and lifetime “caps” on coverage. This limits the number of days you can spend in a hospital in any given year, for example, and the amount of money that the insurance company will pay for your medical care, both on an annual basis and on a lifetime basis. Once you reach those limits, sorry.

    This has nothing to do with hospital “ethics committees”.

    So basically what you have right now is pretty much the private sector equivalent of a death panel, telling you that Grandma’s life is only worth so much health insurance coverage.

    So after a loved one slips into a Persistent Vegetative State, but can be kept alive indefinitely through artifical nutrition and hydration, the family is left with a choice of spending itself into bankruptcy to provide such care, or allowing their loved one to go into the embrace of a loving and merciful God.

  3. Sam Schmitt says:

    I fail to see how starving a person is the same as “allowing their loved one to go into the embrace of a loving and merciful God.”

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