Catholic bishops have intervened in the case of a Polish Catholic patient living in England who has had life-support treatment withdrawn after a court ruling.
In a letter today to Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, two senior Catholic bishops convey the offer of Polish authorities to help transfer the patient, known as Mr RS, to Poland.
The letter is signed by Bishop John Sherrington, who has responsibility in this area on behalf of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, and Bishop of Plymouth Mark O’Toole, the local bishop.
It follows a request from the president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, who wrote to Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols asking for his intervention.
In their letter to Mr Hancock, Bishop Sherrington and Bishop O'Toole say that on behalf of Cardinal Nichols, they wish to express their opposition “to this definition of medical treatment and to convey the offer of the Polish authorities to assist in the transfer of Mr RS to Poland for his future care”.
They continue: “We accept the legal process concerning Mr RS has been completed. However, we pray for agreement within the family about the treatment and care to be provided and express the desire of the Archbishop that Mr RS be transferred and cared for in Poland.
“We wish to express our prayers and compassion for Mr RS and his family in England and Poland and recognise the profoundly tragic health condition which he faces.”
After Mr RS, a Polish citizen who lives in England, had a heart attack last year, he was given artificial hydration and nutrition at a hospital in Plymouth but this was withdraw in January after a court ruling. The Court of Appeal refused the family permission to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
In their letter to the Secretary of State, Bishops Sherrington and O'Toole say: “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.
“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.”
In his letter to Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop Gadecki said that public opinion in Poland was “shaken” by the decision of the British court to stop giving food and water to a Pole hospitalised in Plymouth with a brain injury. “In fact, he was sentenced to death by starvation,” he wrote.
He recalled that the man’s wife and children, living in England, agreed with the decision, but his mother, both sisters and niece had expressed their objection. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg refused their complaint several times, which allowed the hospital to continue the procedure of taking the patient’s life.
“The authorities of our country assured that they would cover the costs of treatment and transport. The British court does not agree to transport the patient as the journey may be life-threatening,” the Polish Archbishop said.
“I turn to Your Eminence – as the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales – asking for your help in this difficult matter and to undertake steps towards saving the life of our compatriot.”
In a separate statement on his diocesan website, Bishop O'Toole again expressesed concern at court’s judgement. He said: “My prayers are with the patient, his wife and family, and for all those involved in his care. The decision of the court to allow for the withdrawal of hydration and nutrition is very worrying. That it is deemed to be in the best interests of the patient more so. Providing food and water to very sick patients – even if by artificial means – is a basic level of care. This is care that we must strive to give whenever possible.”