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
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 email@example.com .
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