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Archbishop Hart defends woman in euthanasia case
In a statement released on 30 May, Melbourne's Archbishop Denis Hart intervened in a landmark Supreme Court case in Victoria, in an effort to help a gravely-ill woman, who was being tube-fed, continue to have access to food and water.
The case has national implications, as it involves the question of whether patients' guardians have the right to remove tube feeding of patients, thereby deliberately hastening their death.
Mr Justice Morris of the Supreme Court had ruled that the tube feeding of the lady was a medical treatment which could be withdrawn at the direction of her guardian under Victoria's Medical Treatment Act.
The 68-year-old woman, known only as Mrs BWV, has been suffering from dementia for many years. She has been tube fed for the past eight years, as her condition deteriorated. For the past three years, she has been been in a nursing home.
Evidence given in the case is that she does not appear to be conscious, and she is incapable of expressing her own wishes regarding future medical treatment.
In a legal sense, the case turned on the question of whether the use of tube feeding of the lady constituted medical treatment or palliative care. Under Victoria's Medical Treatment Act, a guardian may refuse medical treatment but not palliative care.
Palliative care includes provision of reasonable medical procedures for the relief of pain, suffering and discomfort; and the reasonable provision of food and water which is not burdensome for the patient.
The case was complicated by the fact that the medical experts who gave evidence to the court were divided on whether the patient was dying, or whether she was suffering a degenerative brain disease but would eventually die from it or from some other condition.
Evidence given in the case was that Mrs BWV could live for "months or years", if the tube feeding was continued.
In light of the fact that tube feeding was not refused by the patient when she was conscious, it is clearly not burdensome to her now. However, the procedure had become burdensome to her family.
Archbishop Hart took an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the Supreme Court, to ensure that the court heard the case for the continued treatment of Mrs BWV.
Explaining why he had intervened, Archbishop Hart said, "It may set an important precedent for our court-made law here in Australia, as similar cases have overseas. That in turn may change the way we care for and relate to elderly, handicapped and unconscious people for years to come."
The Archbishop added, "Good medical and nursing ethics have always insisted that we may never deliberately hasten death. We all know that that can be done by withholding basic needs, as easily as by giving patients poison. We can kill by neglect.
"Compassion requires that we care, even when we can't cure. Continuing to care for patients is a fundamental way of respecting the bonds of solidarity to which they are entitled.
"It says that even if they are at a very low ebb, not expected to get better, they still matter, and matter very much. It says that even if some other treatments are properly withheld, we will still treat them as one of us. Like everyone else, they are entitled to be fed and kept warm, clean and comfortable."
The Archbishop drew attention to the fact that in some other countries, law courts had failed to strike the balance between the extremes of inappropriate feeding of the dying and deliberate starvation.
"The Bland case in Britain, for instance - in which courts ordered the removal of an unconscious man's feeding-tube - left the law so 'confused' and 'misshapen' (to quote the judges) that a major parliamentary inquiry had to be held.
"The case has been much criticised by legal academics and social commentators but it remains 'on the books'. As a result many disabled and elderly find themselves without the ordinary protection of law and many health workers find their consciences violated. It is vital that our courts do not take the same path," he said.
"It is clear that this is what the euthanasia lobby wants. They know - as every health professional knows - that law and medicine already allow the withdrawal of inappropriate forms of care. But euthanasia advocates have been looking for a test case with which to get our courts drastically to alter the laws protecting human life.
"At a time when reverence for human life is being corroded in some quarters and when pressures on health and aged care resources are considerable, there is a real risk that marginalised people - the poor, the very sick, the unconscious - will be neglected or abandoned. No society can permit that.
"But this decision has very serious implications beyond this case. To regard tube-feeding as an optional medical treatment which can be removed at the direction of a guardian, potentially affects all the elderly, handicapped and unconscious people who rely upon such assistance. We do not believe that Parliament ever intended that such vulnerable people - people not otherwise dying - should be deprived of food and water.
"What our services will never co-operate in or condone is a decision to deliberately shorten someone's life, whether actively or by neglect to provide basic needs. We trust that no-one will attempt to compel Church hospitals, nursing homes or health professionals to act in this way.
"That would be a major violation of people's consciences and would compromise the ability of Australia's largest private health and aged care provider to fulfil its mission," he concluded.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 6 (July 2003), p. 3
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