Life-Sustaining Treatment and Care
Life-sustaining treatment and care may be generally defined as any medical or surgical intervention or basic form of care without which a person cannot live. Stewardship of the gift of life includes the universal moral obligation to conserve human life in a way that corresponds appropriately to the condition of a person’s life: our own or anyone for whom we have responsibility. This means that life-sustaining treatment and care that has a reasonable hope of benefit, and does not cause an excessive burden, is morally obligatory. Any life-sustaining treatment or care that does not have a reasonable hope of benefit or is excessively burdensome is morally optional. This principle from the Catholic moral tradition helps us to understand that the extremes of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide on the one hand, and over-zealous interventions on the other, are to be avoided. Far from being a humane and gentle way to end life, euthanasia can only distance us from our faith, as it assumes that at some point human life ceases to possess meaning. Only by seeing the value in every form of human life, even in those who are suffering, can we seek to understand God’s purpose for us.
In his encyclical entitled Evangelium Vitae, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote, “when he denies or neglects his fundamental relationship to God, man thinks he is his own rule and measure, with the right to demand that society should guarantee him the ways and means of deciding what to do with his life in full and complete autonomy.” He went on to quote the Second Vatican Council stating, "It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute" and yet "man rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the absolute ruin and total disappearance of his own person. Man rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to mere matter."
The moral teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church provides valuable guidance on the principles that should inform conscience about these decisions.
Advance health care directives can be very important for expressing one’s well-formed conscience on the issue of life-sustaining treatment and care.