The Vatican declared last month that it is morally wrong to remove feeding tubes from patients who are in a permanent vegetative state. Responding in part to perplexity over the Terri Schiavo case, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that delivery of food and water, even by artificial means and even to someone who is permanently unresponsive, is “ordinary” care—care that caregivers are morally obliged to provide in virtually all cases in order to preserve the patient’s human dignity.
The notion that giving food and water is ordinary care has a significant tradition behind it. After all, giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty is for Christians a paradigmatic instance of loving one’s neighbor. But in applying this tradition in an absolutist way to the realities of modern medicine, the Vatican has narrowed in an unfortunate way its own rich tradition of practical reasoning about what is “ordinary” and “extraordinary” care.