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Australian ethicist rethinks position on 'vegetative state'

Salesian Fr Norman Ford, who told a ground-breaking Rome conference in March that patients subject to "post-coma unresponsiveness" are suffering a form of "indignity" and should be allowed to die, has revised his position in the light of the comments of Pope John Paul II.

The National Catholic Reporter's John Allen reports that Fr Ford has written a new paper reflecting on the Holy Father's hard-line position against withdrawal of food and water from such patients.

Fr Ford conceded that the Pope's position is "authoritative without being definitive."

He accepted the Pope's position that it is morally obligatory to provide food and water "to the extent in which and as long as it is seen to achieve its proper purpose."

However Fr Ford continues to argue that there is some room for interpretation.

"Clearly there is scope for the responsible exercise of professional judgement by doctors and health carers to determine if patients are truly being nourished and their suffering alleviated. The pope's teaching applies in principle and does not rule out the ethical use of professional judgement by doctors should other medical contraindications arise," he wrote.

"In poor countries where food is scarce even for young babies and facilities are lacking to provide medically assisted nutrition and hydration, health professionals cannot be blamed for this tragic situation."

Ford notes that the Pope has called for positive action to ensure that the lives of such patients are not terminated by the withdrawal of food and water.

"Catholic healthcare facilities need to heed this teaching and to implement it," Ford wrote.

At the same time, however, Ford said special attention will need to be given to staff and any agents with an enduring power of attorney who find in conscience they are unable to follow papal directives.

John L Allen: Who is in charge?; Financing development; The Portland archdiocese files for bankruptcy; More on a papal trip to Ireland; A talk with Archbishop O'Malley; More about life-sustaining medical treatment (National Catholic Reporter 9/7/04)

Norman Ford: The debate goes on (The Tablet 1/5/04)
US Catholic hospitals to uphold living wills (CathNews 19/4/04)
Calls for euthanasia ignore real needs of dying and caregivers (NZ Catholic 18/4/04)
Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, (US Conference of Catholic Bishops)
Catholic Health Australia
US hospitals in dilemma over vegetative patients (CathNews 13/4/04)
Experts say pope's speech on feeding tubes settles some key issues (Catholic News Service 7/4/04)
Australian bioethicists debate letting life end (CathNews 30/3/04)
Vegetative State 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)
Pontifical Academy for Life

12 Jul 2004