March 22, 2005

Catholic Bioethicist Stands Up For Terri and Michael Schiavo

Father John Faris, bioethics professor at Boston College and Catholic priest, says the Terri Schiavo case is about one thing only: the power of the right wing Christian movement. He says that Catholic doctrine is very clear, Catholic doctrine supports the right to refuse unwanted treatment. And he says that the courts had definitely come down on the side of Terri Schiavo who should be allowed to die in peace.

This case has nothing to do with the legal issues involving a feeding tube. The feeding tube issue was definitively resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 in Cruzan vs. Director. The United States Supreme Court ruled that competent patients have the right to decline any and all unwanted treatment, and unconscious patients have the same right, depending upon the evidentiary standard established by the state. And Florida law says that Terri Schiavo has more than met the standard in this state. So there is no legal issue.

Salon asked wasn't the social issue that the law shouldn't have the authority over this life-or-death issue?

Let me give you a test that I've done 100 times to audiences. And I guarantee you can do the same thing. Go and find the first 12 people you meet and say to them, "If you were to suffer a cerebral aneurysm, and we were able to diagnose that with a PET-scan immediately, would you want to be put on a feeding tube, knowing that you can be sustained in this existence?" I have asked that question in medical audiences, legal audiences and audiences of judges. I'll bet I have put that question before several thousand people. How many people do you think have said they wanted to be maintained that way? Zero. Not one person. Now that tells you about where the moral sentiment of our community is.

When asked if this case isn't really about the sanctity of life, he responds:

The sanctity of life? This has nothing to do with the sanctity of life. The Roman Catholic Church has a consistent 400-year-old tradition that I'm sure you are familiar with. It says nobody is obliged to undergo extraordinary means to preserve life.

This is Holy Week, this is when the Catholic community is saying, "We understand that life is not an absolute good and death is not an absolute defeat." The whole story of Easter is about the triumph of eternal life over death. Catholics have never believed that biological life is an end in and of itself. We've been created as a gift from God and are ultimately destined to go back to God. And we've been destined in this life to be involved in relationships. And when the capacity for that life is exhausted, there is no obligation to make officious efforts to sustain it.

There is something obscene about the obsession about a body that can never again be human, and the extraordinary efforts taken by those who seem to be mad in their grief, as well as the cynical use of their grief by the ghouls who are using this case to grow their power.

Posted by Mary at March 22, 2005 12:28 AM | Human Rights | Technorati links |

After reading this story I went to the Vatican's web site. I was surprised to find that in March 2004 the Pope addressed the care of persons in Vegetative States and Persistent Vegetative States. The Catholic position is that Terri Schiavo is being murdered. She is being subject to euthanasia by omission. Nutrition and hydration are not medical treatments. To quote his holiness:
"I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act."

We must always be careful to check and recheck facts. For anyone who wishes to check what I have written, please go to the Vatican's official website:
The text of the pope's speech "ADDRESS OF JOHN PAUL II
can be found there at:

Posted by: Eric MacPhearson at March 30, 2005 10:11 AM

My original comment looks so simple, and so clear; and yet there are complications. Yes, the pope did say that the administration of food and water is not a medical act. However, this was only a speech... he did not issue a formal letter to update official doctrine. This puts the issue in the grey area between the pope's opinion and the church's 'official' doctrine.

The answer to how catholics should respond to this was best expressed on an American Catholic website (

" Q. Are Catholics required to follow the Pope's teaching on moral issues, or only his teaching on doctrine?

All doctrinal teachings involve the issues of faith and morals. Although every encyclical letter addressed to the world on matters of faith and morals in not an infallible pronouncement, if the Pope restates a long-held teaching of the Church (for example, the evil of artificial contraception or that priestly ordination is reserved to men) a good case can be made for the infallibility of that restatement, even if the Pope does not specifically identify his encyclical as infallible, since he is definitively proclaiming that a certain doctrine of faith or morals is to be believed.

Catholics cannot disregard non-infallible statements from the Pope or their Bishop. Divine assistance is given to the Pope and the bishops in communion with him when they, as part of their ordinary teaching duties, propose a teaching that leads to a better understanding of divine revelation in matters of faith and morals. The faithful are to submit humbly and adhere sincerely to the teachings of the Pope, even when he is not speaking infallibly, because his ordinary teaching is an extension of his extraordinary charism. "

It seems that although the "official" doctrine may not have changed, the fact is that a catholic (as a catholic) must honour the stated position of the pope.

I apologize for spending so much ink on a fine point of the catholic faith. It is just that I firmly believe that we must have our facts straight and when I read Father John Faris' statements they screamed out for comment.

Posted by: Eric MacPhearson at March 31, 2005 11:54 AM