Op-Ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (no longer online)
Friday, August 12, 1988
FEEDING IS NOT EXTRAORDINARY CARE– DECISION IN THE NANCY CRUZAN CASE ADDS TO THE LIST OF EXPENDABLE PEOPLE
By Susan Harvath and Nancy Guilfoy Valko
Just a few years ago the Missouri Legislature passed a ”living will” law that specifically excluded food and water from the kinds of care that may be withdrawn from a patient. In 1984, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that legislation should ”recognize the presumption that certain basic measures such as nursing care, hydration, nourishment and the like must be maintained out of respect for the human dignity of every patient.”
Therefore, it is hoped that the Missouri Court of Appeals will overturn the recent Circuit Court decision that would deny tube feedings for Nancy Cruzan, a severely disabled woman cared for at the Missouri Rehabilitation Center. The anguish felt by the Cruzan family, which initiated the suit, is understandable. However, directly causing the death of an innocent person – even for reasons of mercy – violates that person’s basic human rights.
The Cruzan case is perceived by many to be an issue of allowing a person to die. Cruzan has been categorized by some experts as being in a ”persistent vegetative state,” an unfortunate and imprecise term at best. However, she is not dying or brain-dead. Rather, she is severely disabled from brain damage and needs no special technology to survive. Withdrawing her feeding tube would not ”allow” her to die – it would ”force” her to die. She would not die from her injuries, but rather from starvation and dehydration.
Also, starvation and dehydration cause a protracted, agonizing death in a fully conscious person. Some experts have stated that Cruzan would feel no pain if her feedings were stopped. Yet Cruzan’s nurses have testified that she has cried, smiled and even laughed in response to stimuli.
The possibility of pain during the length of time before death occurs has led some to propose lethal injections as a more ”humane” way to cause death than starvation. The passive euthanasia of withdrawing feeding logically leads to active euthanasia by injection or other means. Both are unacceptable.
A recent trend has been to classify tube feedings as medical treatment. However, unlike other medical treatments, denial of food from any person (sick or healthy, in or out of coma) will always result in that person’s death.
Ethically, treatments may be withdrawn if they are useless or burdensome to the patient. However, tube feedings are not excessively expensive or burdensome to the patient and do maintain life and prevent the discomfort of hunger and thirst. In deciding what treatment may ethically be withdrawn one must be careful to judge the treatment itself, not the ”quality” of the patient’s life. A person’s limitations do not decrease a person’s humanity or worth.
In the past few years we have seen many court cases similar to Cruzan’s in other states. Some have involved people less severely disabled than Cruzan. A recent case in North Dakota resulted in a judgment that even feedings by mouth may be stopped. In most cases it is not the patient who requests that feedings be stopped but rather a third party, usually a family member. Often, as in the Nancy Cruzan case, there is no clear and convincing evidence that the patient would even want the feedings stopped.
Some courts have gone even further and have stated that third parties do not need the approval of a court before a patient’s food and water is withdrawn unless there is disagreement, for example, among family members. This trend has unfortunate implications for all people with mental impairments.
There is a vast difference between not prolonging dying and causing death. In the last two decades we have seen killing promoted as a humane and compassionate response to unwanted unborn children, newborns with handicaps and the terminally ill. Let us not add a new category of people (the non-dying, severely disabled) to the list of expendable human lives.
Nancy Guilfoy Valko, R.N., is co-chairperson and Sue Harvath is program director of the St. Louis Archdiocesan Pro-Life Committee.