London (CNSNews.com) - Catholic leaders have supported a British judicial decision to allow a paralyzed woman to die, but denied Wednesday that their stance contravened church opposition to assisted suicide.
The comments by Pope John Paul II and other leading bishops came after last week's decision in favor of Miss B, an anonymous 43-year-old woman who asked doctors to turn off her ventilator, an act that will cause her death.
Staff at an unnamed London hospital refused her request and Miss B, who is paralyzed from the neck down, took her case to the U.K.'s High Court.
On Friday, Justice Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss ruled that Miss B was of sound mind and had the right to refuse any medical treatment, including the continued use of a ventilator. Sloss also awarded Miss B damages of around $140 to compensate her for "unwanted medical treatment."
Speaking to a gathering of doctors in Rome on Saturday, John Paul II said medical technology should not always be used to indefinitely prolong life.
"Certainly one cannot forget that man is a limited and mortal being," the Pope said. "There are limits that are not humanly possible to overcome. In these cases one must know how to serenely accept one's own human condition, that the believer knows how to read in the light of the divine will."
The Pope told the World Organization of Gastroenterology that "exasperated therapeutic cruelty, even with the best intentions, in addition to being useless, would not fully respect the patient who has reached a terminal state."
John Paul II also urged doctors and other professionals to avoid giving patients a false sense of hope and to cater to spiritual as well as physical needs.
"The complexity of the human person demands that, in giving the necessary treatments, the spirit, as well as the body, be taken into account. It would be presumptuous to count on technology alone," he said. "One must approach a patient with a healthy realism."
Church officials, however, denied reports in the British media that suggested the Pope had endorsed a "right to die."
Archbishop of Cardiff Peter Smith, leader of the citizenship committee for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, drew a distinction between the case of Miss B and assisted suicide.
"The right of a patient to refuse treatment has long been recognised as legally and morally acceptable," he said. "It is important to be clear that this case did not involve questions about euthanasia or assisted suicide and has set no precedents in respect of either."
The archbishop called the circumstances of the case "sad and very difficult."
"It is clear that she is a very impressive and courageous lady who deserves great sympathy," he said.
Although the church supported the decision, British pro-life campaigners, including the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and anti-euthanasia group Alert, attacked it.
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Woman Has Right To Instruct Doctors, UK Court Rules (March 22, 2002)
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