Last year, the Italian poet Piergiorgio Welby announced at a press conference that after battling muscular dystrophy for four decades, he would discontinue his ventilator as an act of “euthanasia.” While the ventilator was being stopped, he received large doses of morphine, which could have been independently lethal rather than simply pain-relieving. Welby was a leader of the euthanasia movement in Italy. He seemed to be trying deliberately to blur distinctions and to provoke controversy.
Popular confusion, sensationalistic journalism, and crazy statements on all sides of the case gripped the Italian media for weeks before and after Welby’s death. Vatican officials said that it would be morally licit to stop the ventilator if Welby and his doctor were to decide that the ventilator had become an extraordinary means of care. But by declaring his intent to euthanize himself, Welby had put the church in a difficult position. Finally, the church felt pressed to deny him burial in order to affirm its teaching against suicide. The case was bigger in Italy than Terri Schiavo’s was in the United States.
This controversy-among others-formed part of the backdrop to the Vatican’s September statement on the morality of providing feeding tubes to patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Writing in response to questions from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) regarding the treatment of PVS patients, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) ruled that, in such cases, feeding tubes must be considered, “in principle, an ordinary means of preserving life.” The statement seemed to clarify John Paul II’s much-debated 2004 allocution on PVS, in which he referred to artificial nutrition and hydration as “normal care.” Since that statement was delivered in the throes of the Schiavo debate, one could perhaps be forgiven for believing the CDF is responding mainly to the U.S. situation. Yet Vatican statements on PVS must be understood in their proper context. More than most Americans appreciate, that context is shaped by European politics-especially Italian politics and the broader European debate about euthanasia.
The Vatican’s interest in PVS is also driven by its reaction to utilitarianism-especially in English-speaking nations and particularly in Australia, where philosophical utilitarian ethics is perhaps most radical. Utilitarian philosophers have argued in scholarly journals that it would be more morally appropriate to conduct painful experiments on human beings in PVS than on dogs or porpoises, since those in PVS cannot feel pain and have ceased to be persons. This is not a view that is congenial to Catholic thinking and a group of very influential prelates has pressed for doctrinal responses to such utilitarian claims.
In addition, prolife groups have increasingly turned from the frustrating task for which they were originally founded (namely, promoting more conservative laws against abortion), to work for the eradication of all traces of “softness” on prolife issues inside the church. Obviously some theologians have taken positions that are antithetical to church teaching, but in the view of some extremists within the prolife movement, “heresy” simply means disagreeing with one or another of their own extreme positions. Moved by great religious zeal, well-organized, exceptionally skilled in the use of the Internet, highly influential with bishops and in Rome, but largely untutored in formal theology, members of these movements have occasionally lobbied strongly within the church for very specific causes. A few years ago, for instance, in response to forceful lobbying to the contrary, the Vatican was forced to make an official statement that it was morally acceptable for Catholics to treat their children with vaccines produced from cell lines that originated with tissue that had been obtained from fetuses that were aborted more than twenty years ago. Despite the declaration that using these vaccines would not constitute an immoral form of cooperation in the evil of abortion, zealous lobbying on this issue continues. The use of feeding tubes for patients in PVS has been another one of these causes for many years.
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