Medical bioethics uses the term “ordinary means” to refer to all medical procedures which are normally and typically performed to save and sustain life. Ordinary means are always obligatory and can never be refused unless a specific procedure will have no effect whatsoever. Nutrition (food) and hydration (water) are always ordinary means and must be given as long as the patient’s body is able to absorb or ingest them. Use of a feeding tube or insertion of a tracheotomy are also considered ordinary means and both were administered to Pope John Paul II a month before his death and one year after he issued a statement clarifying that ordinary means and ordinary medical care (shelter, warmth, and dignified respect) must be given to all patients, even those in a persistent vegetative condition.
Extraordinary means are those experimental, expensive, unusual, or rare treatments which may or may not have the desired effect of saving or sustaining life. These can be refused by the patient or their family. Extraordinary means are usually very new, very costly, and can be very painful. The risk is that the cure could be worse than the disease or injury.
In some cases, procedures and treatments which were considered extraordinary means in the past are now considered ordinary means. Blood transfusions, intravenous medication, and even antibiotics were initially experimental, unproven, and potentially dangerous until perfected. Now, they are standard and ordinary procedures. If a dying person’s stomach has shut down and he is incapable of digesting anything, then a feeding tube is redundant. If an IV would work to give his body nutrients, however, then it is considered ordinary means. Ordinary does not mean just what is natural, but includes all modern medical procedures which are typically, routinely, and successfully performed.