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Australian bioethicists debate letting life end

The British Catholic newspaper The Tablet has reported that the recent Vatican conference on the "vegetative state" has brought to light a lack of consensus among bioethicists on when to withdraw nutrition from patients living in a persistent vegetative state.

The four day conference earlier this month was organised by the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and the Pontifical Academy for Life. It attracted a range of doctors and ethicists from around the world.

The Tablet details spirited debate among Australian bioethicists at the conference, including Melbourne's Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics director Fr Norman Ford SDB, who argued in favour of withdrawal of care under some circumstances.

"Failure to give due regard to the clinical reality of permanently unconscious patients shows a lack of respect for them," he said, adding: "The patient should not be subjected to the ontological indignity of being sustained by medically assisted nutrition and hydration for years of unconscious life."

He was supported by Fr Gerald Gleeson of the Catholic Institute of Sydney, who said food and water should be removed if providing sustenance becomes "futile, burdensome, not beneficial to patient, and is prolonging death".

But Fr Ford was challenged by ethicist and Sydney auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher. If continuing to live is unworthy of human dignity with patients incapable of recovery, he asked, why spoon-feed an incapacitated person? Why bother covering them up to avoid colds?

Transcripts of the interventions are published on the Conference website.

Failure to feed 'vegetative' patients immoral, says Pope (The Tablet 27/3/04)

Conference website
Looking to Explain Suffering (Zenit 28/3/04)
Pope calls removing feeding tubes immoral (CathNews 22/3/04)
Pope speaks up for coma patients (Daily Telegraph 21/3/04)
Pope decries care shutdowns (Boston Globe/Associated Press 21/3/04)
Major palliative care conference at the Vatican (CathNews 17/3/04)
International congress on vegetative state (Vatican Information Service 16/3/04)
Pontifical Academy for Life

30 Mar 2004