Suppose a man receives a severe head injury from an automobile accident and is in what doctors call a “persistent vegetative state”. The only way this man can be kept alive is with an artificial respirator. Is one morally obliged to provide this treatment for the rest of the patient’s natural life?
What if the patient could breathe but only needed artificially provided food and hydration. Is one always morally obliged to provide this sort of treatment?
Modern events like this have sparked a heated debate regarding end of life decisions and the moral law.
The bioethical challenge is how to uphold dignity of human life standards in the face of an improving technology which is capable of conserving life much longer than in prior years, and of which it is reasonable to think will greatly improve over time. We are forced, then, to make fundamental moral distinctions about how aggressive we are to be in prolonging life.
Some have adopted a ‘technological imperative’ viz., that if we can conserve life we must conserve life.
But when is enough enough? Is one who believes in intrinsic human value committed to indefinitely preserving human life in disregard of other factors?
Most pro-life minded Catholics today take it for granted that food and water is always an “ordinary” method of conserving life. In other words, food and water, even if administered artificially, should be considered as always morally obligatory.
The problem with this assumption, even though it seems to be taken by many bloggers and prelates in the Church as self-evident, is that it not only leads to morally questionable scenarios, but that it also goes against centuries of Catholic moral thought.
A few years ago, I published a paper in the international journal Bioethics entitled: “THE DEVELOPMENT AND NATURE OF THE ORDINARY/EXTRAORDINARY MEANS DISTINCTION IN THE CATHOLIC TRADITION” where I argue that, according to the principles laid out by the Catholic moral tradition, artificial food and hydration should not always be taken as an ordinary means of conserving life and therefore is not always morally obligatory.
If you are interested in this issue, you can read the full paper here: