August 16-17, 2000
volume 11, no. 142

NEWS for Wednesday-Thursday, August 16-17, 2000
Ethics Committee Convinces Woman to Cut Feeding to Husband

VATICAN CITY, August 14 (

    The ethics committee of St. John's Mercy Medical Center, a St. Louis Catholic hospital, has moved in support of euthanasia, despite the protests of the local archbishop.

    Steven Becker, a 29-year-old father of three, was operated on to remove fluid from the brain in February. However, he has not regained full consciousness since the operation. The hospital now maintains that he is in a permanent vegetative state and wishes to remove tube feeding. Before he was admitted, Becker refused to sign a living will that would have permitted such an action.

    Within weeks of the surgery, the hospital had convinced his wife to cut treatment back to pain killers and tube feeding, which they termed "comfort care." Some days later, she met with the ethics committee of the hospital, and the hospital notes that she decided "that, at some point, she wished to withdraw hydration and nutrition in order not to continue providing extraordinary interventions."

    Becker's mother and aunts refused the counseling offered by St. John's and are opposing the decision. The mother got a lawyer after the neurosurgeon said the decision to withdraw feedings surprised him. The doctor said it was "too soon" because it was just weeks after the surgery. However, the very next day, the doctor told her that he changed his mind after talking with the ethics committee.

    Becker's mother was forced to go to court, where she received an injunction to continue feedings. The court also appointed a public guardian to evaluate the situation. At this point, antibiotics, beneficial medications, physical therapy, etc., were stopped, even though the tube feedings had to be continued by court order. When Becker started to deteriorate, but the guardian only made the hospital restart the antibiotics. Even Steven's hygiene suffered and the family's repeated requests for washcloths so they could bathe him themselves were refused and they were forced to bring their own from home.

    On August 11, the court-appointed guardian recommended that tube feedings be stopped and said that, despite the absence of a living will or other advance directive, people had come forward to say that Becker would not want to live in a so-called vegetative state (at least one neurologist has disputed that diagnosis, however.)

    At present, it appears that Becker's brain shunt has become infected, and he is now suffering from pneumonia without the benefit of antibiotics. It is unlikely that he will survive until the next court hearing, scheduled for September.

    In July, St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali issued a statement that food and water -- even medically assisted -- must be provided to all patients who need it and can medically benefit from it. Last Friday, an editorial in the archdiocesan newspaper said, "in a situation where the health of the patient depends not only upon food and water, but on other forms of care and treatment, the purpose of providing food and water should not be undermined by a neglect of the other forms of care. A patient's life might depend not only upon basic forms of medical treatment such as antibiotics, but upon simple care designed to minimize infection and bolster physical, mental and physiological functioning" and that health care professionals must avoid "any course of action that leaves a patient susceptible to death through lack of care, contrary voices notwithstanding."

    The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" forbids actions or omissions that directly result in the death of a patient. It is not necessary to apply extraordinary means or those that will have no proportionate effect in order to keep the patient alive. Feeding, however, is a basic human right that must never be interrupted (Cf. 2277-2279).

    Nurse Nancy Valko considers Becker's case to be vitally important, not only for his life but also for the precedent it will set for other Catholic hospitals. She is collecting position statements, friend of court briefs, and letters to the Archdiocese, the local newspaper, and St. John's, from people who have survived such situations, their families, and medical experts. Her email address is . ZE00081420

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