Dr. Pavanelli, a professor of intensive care medicine, claims that Pope John Paul II should have received a feeding tube weeks before his death. She has published this claim even though she never had access to either Pope John Paul II or his medical records. She openly admits that her claims are based on information she gained though media reports, watching the pope on television, and from a book written by the Pope’s doctor. Although doctors are not allowed to diagnose through these methods, Dr. Pavanelli not only makes a diagnosis, she accuses the pope of suicide. According to the article in Time, Dr. Pavanelli believes that the pope’s doctors recommended a feeding tube, but he refused the procedure, which she claims amounts to suicide in the opinion of the Church. On May 30, 2005, a Vatican press release stated that the pope had been given a feeding tube, but she claims that it was inserted too late. It has been argued that if Pope John Paul II intended suicide, a feeding tube would not have been inserted at any point. Furthermore, in a press conference given on September 26, 2007, the Vatican announced that the feeding tube had been inserted much earlier, but it was not reported to the media until later. In response, Dr. Pavanelli revised her accusations and now claims that the feeding tube provided was the wrong type. Because she was not present and does not have access to the pope’s medical records, these claims do not have any basis in fact.
Nonetheless, Dr. Pavanelli also claims that Pope John Paul “died for reasons that were clearly not mentioned. […] the incapacity to swallow.” All official reports state that Pope John Paul II died from septic shock and cardiovascular collapse. This was not the result of either starvation or dehydration. The incapacity to swallow and the difficulty breathing which he suffered are both symptoms of his advanced Parkinson’s disease. Difficulty breathing creates a greater risk of infection and physically weakens the patient. A tracheotomy was performed to help the pontiff breathe easier. If suicide had been his intention, he would have refused the tracheotomy.
The most disturbing aspect of the articles are the misrepresentations of the teaching of the Catholic Church. The article in Time claims that “Catholics are enjoined to pursue all means to prolong life.” This statement is false and does not appear in any document of the Catholic Church. On the contrary, article 2278 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted.”
Despite that, the dying can be allowed to suffer from starvation or dehydration. Just weeks before the publication of the MicroMega article, the Vatican released a document entitled Responses to Certain Questions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Concerning Artificial Nutrition and Hydration. The document states:
"The administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life. It is therefore obligatory to the extent to which, and for as long as, it is shown to accomplish its proper finality, which is the hydration and nourishment of the patient. In this way suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented."
While some may interpret that passage to mean that Catholics are obliged to provide feeding tubes at all costs, the Declaration on Euthanasia which was approved by Pope John Paul II in 1980 states:
“When inevitable death is imminent in spite of the means used, it is permitted in conscience to take the decision to refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted”
The Catholic Church teaches that feeding tubes only need to be used when they are necessary and useful. In the case of a dying person, they are to be used to ensure the comfort of the patient. That seems to be exactly what the pope’s doctors did.
Despite appearances, the pope is not the real center of this controversy. He is simply the target which Dr. Pavanelli and MicroMega have chosen. This article is really about Piergiorgio Welby, an Italian man with muscular dystrophy who died after being taken off life support. Mr. Welby was not allowed to have a Catholic funeral because his death was seen by Church law as an act of suicide. The difference between Pope John Paul II and Piergiorgio Welby is that Pope John Paul II was actively dying. Earlier insertion of a feeding tube would not have prevented the pope’s death, but Mr. Welby could have lived for some time if his life support had not been removed. In that way, Mr. Welby’s death was directly caused by the removal of the life support system. Dr. Pavanelli and MicroMega have been vocal supporters of Mr. Welby’s decision. This is simply an attempt to promote their cause.
Through her unsubstantiated accusations and gross misinformation, Dr. Pavanelli has broken the physician’s credo of “First, do no harm”. She has harmed the integrity of the medical profession, the reputation of Pope John Paul II, and the knowledge of all those who do not have expertise in Catholic teaching on end of life issues. Her arguments are not cogent because they are not based on knowledge of the patient, they ignore many disclosed facts, and present an inaccurate view of Church teaching. Moreover, she does not openly disclose her true intentions. I am disappointed that Time has given Dr. Pavanelli a means to promote her message without questioning its factuality.
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Fr. Jonathan Morris