Catholics and Living Wills

Recently, my step-grandfather was involved in a horrible accident - a tree he was removing from the ground snapped back and crushed the right side of his head. Needless to say, he has brain damage.

The doctors do not believe he will be able to be rehabilitated (he is 79 years old), so they are sending him home to receive hospice care.

I believe you would classify his condition as a “vegetative state” (hate the sound of that term). The doctors don’t believe that he will ever recover from this state.

Last week my step-grandmother and step-mother wanted to remove his feeding and hydration tubes. Both myself and my father objected to this and it was not done (thank God).

Now, as it turns out, my step-grandfather’s living will has been discovered. In it, the language apparently states that he didn’t want feeding tubes, etc.

I am greatly troubled by this - if his wishes were against having a feeding tube, would this place his soul in jeopardy? I am struck by the thought that in signing this living will, he may have sinned, as removal of a feeding tube is contrary to both the teaching of the Church and the natural law.

I don’t know what to do - this man was my sponsor when I was confirmed 6 years ago - he assisted (ushering, etc) at Mass for years… I have no legal recourse - but even if his explicit wishes werer against feeding tubes, how can this be right?

Comments would be much appreciated… and prayers for his soul… and for mine…

-Wretched Sinner

The problem with living wills is that the morality of such situations is a bit more complicated than just “You can never remove a feeding tube.” The issue is that you can’t indirectly or directly kill a person. There is a point in the dying process where the person’s body can no longer gain any benefit from the feeding tube. The person will die regardless and the effort to feed the person is a fruitless one. This is completely different when the person is not truly dying, but rather severely disabled.

The problem is that wording the living will to actually mean what the Catholic Church’s on these issues are isn’t easy and different circumstance can lead to morally complicated situation. This is why argumentatively it was considered better to not have a living will because then your loved ones could deal with the details and discern the proper moral decision. However, this also puts you at risk of error in their moral judgment or worse. As such, I’ve heard arguments of having living wills to also protect yourself.

In all honesty, looking at what most living wills say, I doubt a sin was involved. It probably wasn’t worded in a manner that would immediately stick out as “If I am incapacitated to a certain point, please starve me to death.” In fact, the wording could also include the denial of treatment that it would be reasonable to deny. For instance, my grandma recently had a heart attack and a number of severe strokes. She is 85 years old and in her living will requested not to be put through any extreeme surgury that probably wouldn’t even be able to survive anyway. As such, an option with what showed up on her CAT scan was to do brain surgery. But she’s not going through that. Instead she is being put into hospice care where she can be made comfortable and let nature take its course.

And in all honesty, I think that it is better to naturally die with people praying around you (if possible) holding your hand, etc than to put in every last effort only to be left dying on the operating table.

Thank you for your answer - that puts me more at ease.

Ora Pro Nobis

There is much confusion on this issue in our society today, so even if his directions in the living will expressed something at odds with Catholic teaching (something I cannot comment on directly since I do not have the document in front of me), I would not assume that he had sinned in doing so. Most people are motivated to use such verbiage because they “don’t want to be a burden” and their lawyer simply fills in the blanks.

You might find this document helpful going forwards:

Responses to Certain Questions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Concerning Artificial Nutrition and Hydration
(with Commentary)

Basically, it explains how food and water are always considered “ordinary care” (i.e., not “extraordinary”) even when given via artificial means. The document does a good job of outlining and explaining the general principles and also specifying the circumstances where not using these artificial means could be morally licit.

Interesting you should cite that document. We recently worked with our attorney on a new set of estate plans and living wills, and when it came time to draft mine, I deleted all the standard “boilerplate” language suggested by the attorney on end-of-life issues, and inserted a specific statement that in the event of incapacity, issues surrounding nutrition and hydration must be decided in conformity with the most current statement of the USCCB on such issues.

Oh wow, I think I need to make an appointment with our lawyer and do a little updating to my living will. Thank you.

What a great idea! Thanks for that.

Great idea,I’ll have to remember that, but I wonder how living wills that aren’t the standard type are dealt with in emergencies at hospitals?

That’s actually a good question, one that I asked our attorney when I was adding the USCCB wording to my documents. The attorney’s response was that, in fact - at least around here (Massachusetts) - hospitals are in fact very careful to check specific wording in such situations because of both the variability in different patients’ wishes, and the legal liability for getting it wrong.

That’s reassuring to hear.:thumbsup:

I carry in my wallet a laminated card that our attorney gave us that in the event of an emergency, the authorities need to contact their office for a copy of our living wills.

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