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Jan 2004

Priest argues in favour
of denying food and fluids

By Gillian Long
The Interim

Pro-lifers were very concerned after the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute's third annual Connie Heng Lecture in Bioethics on Nov. 14, with keynote speaker Fr. Kevin O'Rourke, O.P., who presented the topic, "The Nutrition-Hydration Debate: Various Options." Following his address, a panel of experts discussed the paper.

O'Rourke is a well-known advocate for the removal of food and fluids from cognitively disabled people who are not otherwise dying. O'Rourke claims that it is permissible to deny food and fluids to people in a "persistent vegetative state," or PVS, because they do not have what he calls "cognitive-affective function." He argues that these people are not capable of participating in friendship with God and therefore lack basic human function.

He did not address the issue that feeding anyone "prolongs" their life, in that it prevents them from starving to death. The pro-life movement objects to the term PVS, as it was created by pro-death bio-ethicists to dehumanize patients.

Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition is concerned with O'Rourke's position. Schadenberg warned, "We have to remember, the people O'Rourke is referring to are not dying, and because of this, what he is advocating is euthanasia. Food and fluids for people who are not otherwise dying is not medical care which can be withdrawn, it is normal comfort care." He also challenged O'Rourke's assertion that PVS patients do not feel pain when they are denied food and hydration, especially in light of the fact that morphine is given in such cases.

O'Rourke scoffed when an audience member asked about studies that found up to half of PVS diagnoses were found to be incorrect. O'Rourke claimed that the gentleman was referring to "the Dallas study," which only looked at 43 cases. He was unconcerned that had his thesis been applied, over 20 people who might have had the capacity to recover would have been starved to death. Father Thomas Lynch followed up to explain that there were several much larger studies, which O'Rourke did not seem to be aware of, that had the same findings as the Dallas study.

O'Rourke was very derisive towards pro-lifers in general, and went so far as to refer to Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry as a "violent agitator" who was "despicable" for interceding on Terri Schiavo's behalf in Florida.

This topic is particularly timely in light of that case. Schiavo has been cognitively disabled since a heart attack in 1990, the trauma of which deprived her brain of oxygen for a number of minutes. She has been diagnosed as being in PVS, despite the fact that she recognizes and responds lovingly to her family, is able to track objects with her eyes and responds to a doctor's instructions. As a result of being denied rehabilitative therapy by her husband for over a decade, she is unable to take food by mouth, but otherwise lives without life support. Her husband wants her feeding tube removed, claiming that she once said she wouldn't want to live hooked up to tubes. Her parents argue that she is not otherwise dying and to remove her feeding tube would be euthanasia. O'Rourke referred to this case specifically, advocating for the removal of the feeding tube, and discounting as "insignificnt" video evidence of Schiavo responding to her family and doctors by laughing and following directions.

Panel members Father Tom Lynch, of St. Augustine's Seminary in Toronto, and Dr. Luigi Castagna, a pediatrician, supported the pro-life view. Dr. Rory Fisher, a geriatrician, stated that he agreed completely with O'Rourke, but admitted that his expertise was limited to late-stage dementia patients who sometimes have their feeding tubes removed after they persistently attempt to remove it themselves, causing injury.

Pro-lifers have had concerns about O'Rourke before. He claimed responsibility for developing a Unites States Council of Catholic Bishops' policy that sanctions Catholic hospitals dispensing the abortifacient "morning-after pill" to rape victims. The policy requires that a woman be given a pregnancy test, which would determine if she was pregnant prior to the rape, and an ovulation test to determine if she might have been able to become pregnant during the rape. The drug is not to be given if it appears likely that its action would be abortifiacient, rather than contraceptive. However, it is not possible to tell with any certainty which of those functions would be served in the short time frame required for the MAP. Moreover, there are serious health concerns for women associated with such "medications," which are highly toxic doses of artificial hormones.

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