Q. I attended a presentation by a Catholic deacon on end-of-life issues and medical ethics. If I understood correctly, he emphasized that when a person has had a stroke, even if he is not expected to live long, it is still necessary to provide oxygen, nutrition and hydration. For nutrition, he said a feeding tube should be inserted.
To me, that seems an extraordinary means; it is invasive, can cause infection and needs to be changed regularly. As for me, if death were fairly imminent, I would not want a feeding tube if I were unable to swallow pureed food.
So my question is: Must a person, if Catholic, allow a feeding tube? (Now that my husband and I are past the age of 75, we are beginning to think about these things.) (Port St. Lucie, Florida)
A. The answer to your question, "Must a Catholic allow a feeding tube?" is, "Not always." In most situations -- in the view of Catholic theology -- medically assisted nutrition and hydration constitutes an ordinary means of treatment and would morally be required for those who cannot take food orally (even for patients in a "persistent vegetative state.")
That presumption, however, can be overridden by the circumstances in a particular case. This exception to the general rule is well-expressed in a document authored by the Catholic bishops of New York state entitled "Now and at the Hour of Our Death," which states:
"When death is imminent (within days) or in rare instances when a gastric feeding tube may cause intractable side effects such as severe agitation, physical discomfort, aspiration into the lungs or severe infection, any foreseeable benefits of maintaining the tube are likely outweighed in light of the attending burdens."
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.