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English bishops protest that comatose man should be kept on life support

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John Burger - published on 01/20/21 - updated on 01/20/21

Polish authorities have offered help in bringing the patient, who is Catholic, home for care.

Providing food and water to very sick patients, even by assisted means, is a basic level of care, two English bishops said in the midst of a dispute over withdrawing nutrition and hydration to a patient. 

“This care must be given whenever possible unless it is medically indicated as being overly burdensome or failing to attain its purpose,” said Bishops John Sherrington and Mark O’Toole to the British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Mark Hancock. “The recent court cases concerning patient Mr. RS in the care of the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust has shown the level of controversy around this definition as judges have been called to make decisions in the ‘best interests’ of the patient.”

The bishops relayed an offer from Polish authorities to transport the patient to his native Poland. 

Just the other day, a leading bishop in Poland wrote to the head of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales asking for his intervention in the case.”

“The authorities of our country assured that they would cover the costs of treatment and transport,” Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki of Poznan, president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Poland, wrote.

Archbishop Gądecki said the man, identified only as RS, has been “sentenced to death by starvation.”

In early November, RS had a heart attack at his home in southern England, and his brain was deprived of oxygen for at least 45 minutes. Since then, he has been in a coma in hospital.  Specialists told the man’s family that his condition would never significantly improve and thought life-support treatment should end. His wife agreed and told a judge that her husband had talked of not wanting to be a “burden.” The man’s mother and sisters disagreed, saying that because of his Catholic beliefs he would not have wanted his life to be ended if it could be saved.

A London-based judge sided with the man’s wife of nearly 20 years, reasoning that she would know his mind better. He determined that it is in RS’s best interests not to receive life-sustaining treatment, including artificial ventilation, nutrition and fluids. 

The Court of Appeal refused the family permission to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, the Tablet reported.

Redefining medical treatment

Wednesday’s letter to the British Secretary of State is signed by Bishops John Sherrington, an official of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and Mark O’Toole, bishop of Plymouth, where RS lives. They express their opposition “to this definition of medical treatment” and to convey the offer of Polish authorities “to assist in the transfer of Mr. RS to Poland for his future care.”

“The Catholic Church continues to oppose the definition of assisted nutrition and hydration as medical treatment which has now become the basis of medical and legal decisions to withdraw assisted nutrition and hydration from patients,” the bishops say in the letter. “Providing food and water to very sick patients, even by assisted means, is a basic level of care. This care must be given whenever possible unless it is medically indicated as being overly burdensome or failing to attain its purpose. The recent court cases concerning patient Mr. RS in the care of the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust has shown the level of controversy around this definition as judges have been called to make decisions in the ‘best interests’ of the patient.

“We note that Mr. RS had not refused food and fluids nor had he expressed any view about not wanting food and fluids in these circumstances and that there was no evidence that he viewed assisted nutrition and hydration as medical treatment,” the letter continues. 

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