My wife, LaRee, and I were asked to address a conference about critical life issues sponsored by the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey. They wanted us to speak about a Christian perspective on suffering, disability, and end-of-life care. It is a timely topic because New Jersey is considering a law to allow assisted suicide.
The diocese wanted the dual perspectives of someone with a degenerative and incurable condition like multiple sclerosis (me) and that of a loved one watching the deterioration and unable to stop it (my wife).
LaRee and I looked forward to going to New Jersey for two reasons: First, we thought we could bring a needed life-affirming Christian story to the debate raging in that state. Second, we were going to celebrate our 40th anniversary after the conference in nearby New York City. It was not to be.
LaRee’s aged mother’s frail physical condition started to take a life-threatening turn for the worse in Edmonton.* We could not risk being so far away from her. Once again, my wife is giving a profound witness, by her actions, for Christian care to those who cannot care for themselves. We cancelled our trip.
My wife’s active love for others has been illustrated for more than half of her lifetime.
Her mother lives in a secular nursing home and has dementia; her confusion makes her frightened and she cries out for LaRee. As soon as she enters her mother’s room, all is calm because she knows she is safe with LaRee near.
Unfortunately, my wife has deep reservations about anything that would put her mother in secular acute care hospital settings. That should come as no surprise in the current climate sympathetic to euthanasia.
The threat of her mother being denied nutrition and hydration (food and water) is real. LaRee’s grandmother endured that cruel fate 10 years ago and died a torturous death. It happens all the time to vulnerable people.
In this new bioethical era, the incurably ill, dying, aged, and severely disabled are increasingly fearful of hospitals where some physician with full backing of a hospital ethics committee may decide providing treatment to them is futile. I am unaware of that happening in any Catholic hospitals.
Treatment may be futile, but the patient is never futile. Doing anything to hasten the death of a sick or dying person is always wrong and flies in the face of a long tradition of Hippocratic medicine. That’s why I contend that Catholic hospitals must never acquiesce to trends in bioethics that do not recognize the innate dignity and worth of every human being regardless of their state or stage in life.
Whether or not physicians working in Catholic hospitals are Catholic, they must adhere to Catholic principles. As a person with advanced multiple sclerosis, I want to rest confident knowing that medical decisions about my care follow those teachings.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that euthanasia is morally unacceptable (2277-79). Any act of omission that causes death (like withholding food and water) is considered as murder and must always be forbidden.
The Church does recognize there are times when active treatment designed to cure a dying patient ceases to be appropriate. “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate.”
If death of a patient is imminent, “painkillers to alleviate sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means.”
In such cases, death is recognized as inevitable, but not hastened. The underlying principle is that death must never be the intent of any medical action or inaction. If a cure is not possible, care still is.
This is the ethic by which Catholic hospitals must operate their end-of-life care. They must always act in accordance with Catholic teaching on matters of life and death and never give in to trends in bioethics, secular pressures, or financial burdens.
I mentioned that my mother-in-law feels safe when LaRee is near. Even in her mounting dementia she seems to know she’s in good hands. LaRee’s Christianity and familial love motivates her to stand in the gap for her vulnerable loved ones.
Recently, she combed through her mother’s advanced directive from 2009 and updated it to reflect 2013’s reality. She met with her mother’s treating physician to make sure every measure for comfort is given and ordinary care owed to all sick people is not interrupted.
By caring for her mother in this way, LaRee is giving a vivid testimony to a culture of life that treats dying as the last phase of living in which the bonds of humanity are strengthened, not weakened.
Mark Pickup has lived with aggressive multiple sclerosis for over 28 years. Although electric wheelchair dependent, Mark has spoken across the United States and Canada promoting the sanctity, dignity, and equality of all human life. He has addressed politicians and legislative committees (both Canadian and American), university forums, hospital medical staffs, religious and denominational leaders, community groups, and organizations about the critical importance of protecting all human life from conception to natural death. Mark is also a widely published writer on bioethical and Christian issues. He writes a column for Canada’s Western Catholic Reporter newspaper. Mark is the recipient of numerous awards including the Monsignor Bill Irwin Award for Ethical Excellence, the William Kurelek Award for fostering respect and appreciation for the dignity of human life (Canada), and a Governor General’s Medal for Community Service.
This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at http://www.wcr.ab.ca/Columns/OpinionsStories/tabid/70/entryid/4720/Default.aspx.
*LaRee's mother passed away peacefully and with good care on December 30, 2013.