I am an EMHC and was called to the house of a man who would likely die soon. He was unconscious and being given no food or fluids. In effect he was being starved to death. What should I have done?
Church teaching on this matter is clear. Nutrition and hydration, even by artificial means (e.g. a feeding tube), cannot simply be terminated because doctors have determined that a person will never recover consciousness. A statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith emphasized that administering food and water to a patient in a persistently unconscious state is morally obligatory "to the extent to which, and for as long as, it is shown to accomplish its proper finality, which is the hydration and nourishment of the patient." "In this way suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented."
Exceptions may occur when patients are unable to assimilate food and water or in the "rare" cases when nutrition and hydration become excessively burdensome for the patient because the fluids swamp the body.
Nutrition and hydration are not extraordinary care since they are not excessively expensive and do not necessarily require hospitalization. Giving them is not a treatment that cures the patient, but is ordinary care aimed at the preservation of life.
A priest should certainly handle these sorts of cases. The priest for his part, in encountering cases like this should ascertain the facts and be sure it is not a rare case where the food or fluids, because they cannot be digested offer no help, and only intensify suffering. Precluding such rare cases, he should then instruct and admonish the family to see that caretakers provide food and water (usually via a tube).
Unfortunately, if the family or caretaker with medical power of attorney refuses, there are very few legal remedies in most jurisdictions. Judges have usually ruled that food and water through a tube is not required care for those who are unconscious.
Many do die prematurely on account of this flawed understanding of ordinary and necessary medical care. It is another tragic example of the world’s rejection of Church’s teachings on life.
"Building our Catholic faith one question at a time."