Cardinal Poletto's statement immediately follows strong comments from the Vatican condemning US President Obama's arrogance over abortion. Obama's promise to sign the Freedom of Choice Act which seeks to compel medical professionals to provide abortions, with no opt-outs for conscientious objection, reflects political trends elsewhere in the world. This includes Britain - on euthanasia by neglect - and in Europe, where unelected international bodies are seeking to advance a new doctrine of human rights, including the right to abortion, as human rights expert Jakob Cornides has pointed out.
Cardinal Poletto's intervention and leadership in the case of Eluana Englaro are exactly what's needed in the world today. He says: “No human law can go against conscience, obliging it to commit acts that are against our own convictions ... This is valid for a doctor who is being asked to practice an abortion, as well as for the one who is forced to remove Eluana’s feeding tube, or for the pharmacist who refuses to sell a certain pill”.
SPUC has been reporting on this story since July last year. Eluana was injured in a vehicle accident in 1992 since when she has been in a semi-coma "showing some signs of extremely limited consciousness", according to Monsignor Barreiro, director of the Rome office of Human Life International. He added: "However, we are not fighting for Eluana's life because she has limited signs of consciousness but because of her dignity as a human being".
Cardinal Poletto's comments reflect the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, re-stated on 1st August 2007 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in "Responses to Certain Questions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Concerning Artificial Nutrition and Hydration".
The CDF document, which is in question and answer form, begins:
"First question: Is the administration of food and water (whether by natural or artificial means) to a patient in a “vegetative state” morally obligatory except when they cannot be assimilated by the patient’s body or cannot be administered to the patient without causing significant physical discomfort?
"Response: Yes. The administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life. It is therefore 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 ... "
In a most helpful commentary on their responses to the US bishops, the CDF shows how the Church's position on "the nutrition and hydration of patients in the condition commonly called a 'vegetative state'" has been its consistent teaching on this matter, making a careful distinction between this medical situation and the "use and interruption of techniques of resuscitation". The Commentary states:
" ... The Address of Pope Pius XII to a Congress on Anesthesiology, given on November 24, 1957, is often invoked in favor of the possibility of abandoning the nutrition and hydration of such patients. In this address, the Pope restated two general ethical principles. On the one hand, natural reason and Christian morality teach that, in the case of a grave illness, the patient and those caring for him or her have the right and the duty to provide the care necessary to preserve health and life. On the other hand, this duty in general includes only the use of those means which, considering all the circumstances, are ordinary, that is to say, which do not impose an extraordinary burden on the patient or on others. A more severe obligation would be too burdensome for the majority of persons and would make it too difficult to attain more important goods. Life, health and all temporal activities are subordinate to spiritual ends. Naturally, one is not forbidden to do more than is strictly obligatory to preserve life and health, on condition that one does not neglect more important duties.
"One should note, first of all, that the answers given by Pius XII referred to the use and interruption of techniques of resuscitation. However, the case in question has nothing to do with such techniques. Patients in a “vegetative state” breathe spontaneously, digest food naturally, carry on other metabolic functions, and are in a stable situation. But they are not able to feed themselves. If they are not provided artificially with food and liquids, they will die, and the cause of their death will be neither an illness nor the “vegetative state” itself, but solely starvation and dehydration. At the same time, the artificial administration of water and food generally does not impose a heavy burden either on the patient or on his or her relatives. It does not involve excessive expense; it is within the capacity of an average health-care system, does not of itself require hospitalization, and is proportionate to accomplishing its purpose, which is to keep the patient from dying of starvation and dehydration. It is not, nor is it meant to be, a treatment that cures the patient, but is rather ordinary care aimed at the preservation of life.
"What may become a notable burden is when the “vegetative state” of a family member is prolonged over time. It is a burden like that of caring for a quadriplegic, someone with serious mental illness, with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and so on. Such persons need continuous assistance for months or even for years. But the principle formulated by Pius XII cannot, for obvious reasons, be interpreted as meaning that in such cases those patients, whose ordinary care imposes a real burden on their families, may licitly be left to take care of themselves and thus abandoned to die. This is not the sense in which Pius XII spoke of extraordinary means ... "