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Catholic Health says withdrawing treatment requires case-by-case decision

Ethical decisions about whether to treat, withhold treatment or withdraw treatment still need to be made on a case-by-case basis, according to a Catholic Health Australia (CHA) statement released yesterday.

In making the statement, CHA was concerned to reassure health professionals working in Catholic health institutions that last week's Victorian Supreme Court's ruling that the provision of nutrition and hydration via PEG constitutes medical treatment does not affect CHA's Code of Ethical Standards.

In last week's ruling, Justice Stuart Morris said the artificial food and hydration being provided to a woman known only as "BWV" was a medical procedure rather than palliative care, and therefore could be refused.

The CHA statement, formulated by the chair of its Stewardship Board Dr Helen M Delaney RSM, asserts that the judgement concerns legal definitions of 'medical treatment' and 'palliative care'. She stresses that it does not deal with questions concerning the ethical issues about treatment.

In stating that decisions to withhold treatment should be made on a case-by-case basis, Dr Delaney said deliberation should be undertaken with care and concern for the patient and all those responsible for the care of the patient.

"The tradition of sound medical practice and ethical care is based on the principles outlined in CHA's Code of Ethical Practice," she said. "Our code states: 'Treatment may legitimately be foregone if it makes no significant contribution to cure or improvement, or if the benefits hoped for do not justify the foreseeable burdens of the treatment'."

The statment pointed out that CHA's concern to forestall any decision by the Victoria Supreme Court compelling Catholic institutions and personnel to withdraw treatment in a manner to which they would have a conscientious objection.

"It appears to us that there is nothing in the judgement which raises such a prospect."

Catholic Health Australia

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6 Jun 2003