9) Euthanasia

I’ve always known that my church taught that you don’t have to go to “heroic means” to save the life of someone who has a terminal illness, but a few years ago I heard Pope John Paul II say that nutrition and hydration are ordinary means of care, even if administered by tube feeding.  I nearly had a heart attack!  “You mean I have to be hooked up to machines until my body rots off the gurney?!  This is outrageous!”

But a little research clarified for me that the Church was trying to prevent people from being starved to death just because they can’t communicate.  I found people like Kate Adamson who had a stroke (not dying, just couldn’t talk) and lived to tell that being dehydrated was worse than being operated on with inadequate anesthesia.  Think about grabbing a scalpel and cutting into your own organs.  The Church is trying to prevent that torture.

I do some volunteer work at a medical facility and was told in a training session that dehydration was a “comforting, euphoric, analgesic” way to die.  I thought, OK, this is where Catholic teaching gets put to the test, so I asked for the scientific evidence to back up their statements.  They gave me this.  

There is no scientific evidence given here to back up their assertions.  8 out of 10 hospice nurses say dehydration is painless? Doesn’t this mean 20% of them believe it is painful?  They even ask a priest to weigh in, which makes no sense unless he is a regular witness to these euphoric deaths.  If 100% of patients described dying of thirst as “comforting”, that would be evidence, but if fluids are withdrawn when the patient can’t speak, obviously they can’t protest.  This paper unscientifically declares that if you are in a coma you are dying, have no purpose in life, and dehydrating you is A-OK.  And nurses who object are told to keep their opinions to themselves.

According to people who have lived to tell, unless death is immanent and your organs are shutting down, dehydration is a torturous way to die.  I have seen stroke patients who are clearly aware of their surroundings, who reach out to hug their loved ones but are unable to speak, killed this way on nurse’s advice.  People whose lives are viewed as undesirable, disabled children for example, have been euthanized this way because tube administered food and water have been redefined in recent years as a medical treatment.   A representative of my hospital said that “confusion” is reason enough to withhold fluids from a patient.  It was only a few years ago that a doctor would not even consider this course of action.

I was really alarmed when this medical facility described organ donation and told us that unpaired organs must be “engorged with blood and oxygen” to be useful for transplant.  That sounded like “alive” to me, and I found out that sometimes it is.  Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link The whole concept of “non-heart beating organ donor” originated at the Cleveland Clinic and they were not anxious for the public to know too much about it, and the only reason for adopting the protocol was to facilitate the harvesting of organs.  I have mocked others in the past for saying this, but there seems to be a conflict of interest here.

The Church goes to the Bible for moral answers, but to scientists for scientific answers.  The Catholic Church gives specific scientific criteria for determining brain death, not because they consulted the Gospel of Luke, but because we consulted doctors and bioethicists.  The Church’s advice to err on the side of life has been vindicated in the news lately with supposedly PVS patients regaining consciousness and therapy bringing these people to a state of life that they cherish.  I have a girlfriend who was told in nursing school that Terri Schiavo was brain-dead.  You can debate the morality of dehydrating her to death, but it is simply a matter of medical fact that she was not brain dead.  The Church is more in keeping with science than this teacher swayed by politics.

Poster promoting eugenics and euthanasia of di...
Image via Wikipedia

If history is to be our guide, it seems that if you give death an inch it takes a mile.  It never confines itself to individual autonomy but exerts its judgments over the helpless and innocent.  Euthanasia in the Netherlands began as suicide to end intractable pain and has morphed into “involuntary euthanasia”, even for children. Link Link Link The Nazi euthanasia program, Action T4, began as mercy killing for the incurably sick, but during WWII morphine became expensive and the cheaper “bus-as-gas-chamber” method of killing began…and didn’t end until millions of Jews were gassed. Then as now, the one organization that had to be contended with was the Catholic Church and its conviction that life is inherently sacred.  To quote a Jew by the name of Albert Einstein, “…Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.” (December 23, 1940 issue of Time magazine)

The Church’s teaching on euthanasia is an effort to protect you from those who would benefit from your untimely death.  If we are to have socialized medicine forced upon us, the “useless eaters” have to go – they are a strain on the system.  In the Netherlands some hospitals hang posters on the walls reminding the elderly of how much it costs to care for them (I wonder what they are suggesting…).  An elderly parent might suck up their child’s inheritance in doctor bills if they live too long.  Besides, taking care of a needy parent might cramp your style, as would an inconvenient spouse like Terri Shiavo.  This atheist accurately describes the blatant violations of Terri’s rights.

Catholics accept death when it is inevitable. We just don’t want people poisoned or neglected to death.  Mother Teresa started her whole ministry with the intent of giving the incurably dying a place where, to quote a patient, “I will die like an angel, loved and cared for.” (You are entitled to believe criticisms about Mother Teresa, but you notice there is no shortage of willing recipients of her services.  And the Vatican, true to its mission of perusing truth, invited Christopher Hitchens to testify against her beatification.)  We try to eliminate the pain, not the person. For example, we teach that it is moral to give a dying person as much medication as they need to eliminate pain, even if it unintentionally shortens life, but we never justify directly killing anyone.  (This is called the principle of double-effect.)  It is the Church’s scorned moral absolutes that stem the tide of Mengeles and Kevorkians and their false sense of medical progress.  (Take a look at Jack Kevorkian’s art and ask yourself if you would want this guy in charge of your Hospice care.)

Michelangelo's Pietà
Image by Sebastian Bergmann via Flickr

No human being is exempt from suffering.  Despite our best efforts, the dying will still experience a certain amount of pain, discomfort, loneliness, regret, and sorrow.  Catholics believe in what’s called “redemptive suffering”: that the old, sick, and suffering can offer up their pain in union with the cross of Christ, co-redeeming themselves and the world.  We believe that every physical and emotional pain can be transformed into a jewel in an eternal crown.  Our Lady of Fatima said that offering up pain not only keeps people out of hell, it hastens the arrival of peace in the world, and from that perspective the sick and suffering are the most powerful, important, and indispensable people in the world.  I know you don’t believe in those things, but think the world is more human and fraternal because of Catholics who do.


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