Protected: Podcast 27: My interview with Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa of New Wave Feminists

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

What the Catholic Church teaches about death with dignity

“Death with dignity” laws are both sensible and compassionate; religious prohibitions of suicide are both emotional and cruel.     

Too often, that’s how the narrative goes when we discuss end-of-life issues and the laws surrounding them. Secular folks claim that, when people of faith protest against legalized suicide and euthanasia, our arguments are based in emotion, passion, or even a sadistic appetite for pain and suffering.

On the contrary, the Catholic Church’s teachings are both consistent and compassionate.

In light of recent discussions of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and his views on assisted suicide and euthanasia, and in light of the story of a Dutch doctor who directed family members to hold down a struggling old woman so he could carry out her “assisted suicide,” I’m sharing again this article from 2013. The research I did for it corrected many of my own misconceptions about what it means to be pro-life at the end of life.

***

“Technology runs amok without ethics,” says Tammy Ruiz, a Catholic nurse who provides end-of-life care for newborns. “Making sure ethics keeps up with technology is one of the major focuses of my world.”

How do Catholics like Ruiz honor the life and dignity of patients, without playing God—either by giving too much care, or not enough?

Cathy Adamkiewicz had to find that balance when she signed the papers to remove her four-month-old daughter from life support. The child’s bodily systems were failing, and she would not have survived the heart transplant she needed. She had been sedated and on a respirator for most of her life. Off the machines, Adamkiewicz says, “She died peacefully in my husband’s arms. It was a joyful day.”

“To be pro-life,” Adamkiewicz explains, “does not mean you have to extend life forever, push it, or give every type of treatment.”

Many believe that the Church teaches we must prolong human life by any means available, but this is not so. According to the Catechism of the Catholic ChurchDiscontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment” (CCC, 2278).

Does this mean that the Church accepts euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide—that we may end a life to relieve suffering or because we think someone’s “quality of life” is too poor? No. The Catechism continues: “One does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (CCC, 2278).

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of Pro-Life Activities at the USCCB, explains that caregivers must ask, “What good can this treatment do for this person I love? What harm can it do to him or her? This is what Catholic theology calls ‘weighing the benefits and burdens of a treatment.’ If the benefit outweighs the burden, in your judgment, you should request the treatment; otherwise, it would be seen as morally optional.”

Palliative care is also legitimate, even if it may hasten death—as long as the goal is to alleviate suffering.

But how are we to judge when the burdens outweigh the benefits?

Some decisions are black and white: We must not do anything, or fail to do anything, with the goal of bringing about or hastening death. “An act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator (CCC, 2277).

The dehydration death of Terry Schiavo in 2005 was murder, because Schiavo was not dying. Withdrawing food and water had the direct goal of killing her.

But if a man is dying of inoperable cancer and no longer wishes to eat or drink, or his body can no longer process nutrition, withdrawing food and water from him might be ethical and merciful. He is already moving toward death, and there is no reason to prolong his suffering.

Moral Obligations

Our moral obligations are not always obvious. Laura Malnight struggled with doubt and fear as she contemplated the future of her tiny newborn quadruplets. Two of them had pneumonia.

“It was horrible to watch them go through what they had to go through to live, being resuscitated over and over again,” Malnight says.

One baby was especially sick and had suffered brain damage. The doctors who had pushed her to do “selective reduction” while she was pregnant now urged her to stop trying to keep her son alive. “They said we were making a horrible mistake, and they painted a terrible picture of what his life would be like in an institution,” Malnight says.

Exhausted and overwhelmed, Malnight was not able to get a clear answer about the most ethical choice for her children.

Everyone told her, “The baby will declare himself,” signaling whether he’s meant to live or die. “But,” says Malnight, “my only experience with motherhood was with these babies, in their isolettes. The thing was, we would put our hands over our son and he would open his eyes, his breathing would calm.”

“We just kind of muddled through,” she says. Her quadruplets are now 13 years old, and her son, while blind and brain-damaged, is a delightful and irreplaceable child.

Doerflinger acknowledges Malnight’s struggle: “Often there is no one right or wrong answer, but just an answer you think is best for your loved one in this particular situation, taking into account that patient’s own perspective and his or her ability to tolerate the burdens of treatment.”

The key, says Cathy Adamkiewicz, is “not to put our human parameters on the purpose of a human life.”

When she got her infant daughter’s prognosis from the neurologist, she told him, “You look at her as a dying system. I see a human being. Her life has value, not because of how much she can offer, but there is value in her life.”

“Our value,” Cathy says, “is not in our doing, but in our being. Doerflinger agrees, and emphasizes that “every life is a gift. Particular treatments may be a burden; no one’s life should be dismissed as a burden.”

He says that human life is “a great good, worthy of respect. At the same time, it is not our ultimate good, which lies in our union with God and each other in eternity. We owe to all our loved ones the kind of care that fully respects their dignity as persons, without insisting on every possible means for prolonging life even if it may impose serious risks and burdens on a dying patient. Within these basic guidelines, there is a great deal of room for making personal decisions we think are best for those we love.”

Because of this latitude, a living will is not recommended for Catholics. Legal documents of this kind cannot take into account specific, unpredictable circumstances that may occur. Instead, Catholic ethicists recommend drawing up an advance directive with a durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy. A trusted spokesman is appointed to make medical decisions that adhere to Church teaching.

Caregivers should do their best to get as much information as possible from doctors and consult any priests, ethicists, or theologians available—and then to give over care to the doctors, praying that God will guide their hearts and hands.

Terri Duhon found relief in submitting to the guidance of the Church when a sudden stroke caused her mother to choke. Several delays left her on a ventilator, with no brain activity. My husband and I couldn’t stand the thought of taking her off those machines. We wanted there to be a chance,” she says. But as the night wore on, she says, “We reached a point where it was an affront to her dignity to keep her on the machines.”

Duhon’s words can resonate with caregivers who make the choice either to extend life or to allow it to go: “I felt thankful that even though all of my emotion was against it, I had solid footing from the Church’s moral teaching. At least I wasn’t making the decision on my own.”

Adamkiewicz agrees. “It’s so terrifying and frustrating in a hospital,” she remembers. “I can’t imagine going through it without having our faith as our touchstone during those moments of fear.”

 *********

End of life resources

Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services (from the USCCB)

Evangelium Vitae

Pope John Paul II, To the Congress on Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State, 20 March 2004 

NCBCenter.org provides samples of an advance directive with durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy.

This article was originally published in Catholic Digest in 2013.

What the Catholic Church teaches about care for the dying

“Death with dignity” laws are both sensible and compassionate; religious prohibitions of suicide are both emotional and cruel.

Too often, that’s how the narrative goes when we discuss end-of-life issues and the laws surrounding them. Secular folks claim that, when Catholics and others protest against legalized suicide and euthanasia, our arguments are based in emotion, passion, or even a sadistic appetite for pain and suffering.

On the contrary, the Catholic Church’s teachings are both consistent and compassionate.

In light of recent discussions of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and his views on assisted suicide and euthanasia, and in light of the story of a Dutch doctor who directed family members to hold down a struggling old woman so he could carry out her “assisted suicide,” I’m sharing again this article from 2013. The research I did for it corrected many of my own misconceptions about what it means to be pro-life at the end of life.

 

***

“Technology runs amok without ethics,” says Tammy Ruiz, a Catholic nurse who provides end-of-life care for newborns. “Making sure ethics keeps up with technology is one of the major focuses of my world.”

How do Catholics like Ruiz honor the life and dignity of patients, without playing God—either by giving too much care, or not enough?

Cathy Adamkiewicz had to find that balance when she signed the papers to remove her four-month-old daughter from life support. The child’s bodily systems were failing, and she would not have survived the heart transplant she needed. She had been sedated and on a respirator for most of her life. Off the machines, Adamkiewicz says, “She died peacefully in my husband’s arms. It was a joyful day.”

“To be pro-life,” Adamkiewicz explains, “does not mean you have to extend life forever, push it, or give every type of treatment.”

Many believe that the Church teaches we must prolong human life by any means available, but this is not so. According to the Catechism of the Catholic ChurchDiscontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment” (CCC, 2278).

Does this mean that the Church accepts euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide—that we may end a life to relieve suffering or because we think someone’s “quality of life” is too poor? No. The Catechism continues: “One does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (CCC, 2278).

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of Pro-Life Activities at the USCCB, explains that caregivers must ask, “What good can this treatment do for this person I love? What harm can it do to him or her? This is what Catholic theology calls ‘weighing the benefits and burdens of a treatment.’ If the benefit outweighs the burden, in your judgment, you should request the treatment; otherwise, it would be seen as morally optional.”

Palliative care is also legitimate, even if it may hasten death—as long as the goal is to alleviate suffering.

But how are we to judge when the burdens outweigh the benefits?

Some decisions are black and white: We must not do anything, or fail to do anything, with the goal of bringing about or hastening death. “An act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator (CCC, 2277).

The dehydration death of Terry Schiavo in 2005 was murder, because Schiavo was not dying. Withdrawing food and water had the direct goal of killing her.

But if a man is dying of inoperable cancer and no longer wishes to eat or drink, or his body can no longer process nutrition, withdrawing food and water from him might be ethical and merciful. He is already moving toward death, and there is no reason to prolong his suffering.

Moral Obligations

Our moral obligations are not always obvious. Laura Malnight struggled with doubt and fear as she contemplated the future of her tiny newborn quadruplets. Two of them had pneumonia.

“It was horrible to watch them go through what they had to go through to live, being resuscitated over and over again,” Malnight says.

One baby was especially sick and had suffered brain damage. The doctors who had pushed her to do “selective reduction” while she was pregnant now urged her to stop trying to keep her son alive. “They said we were making a horrible mistake, and they painted a terrible picture of what his life would be like in an institution,” Malnight says.

Exhausted and overwhelmed, Malnight was not able to get a clear answer about the most ethical choice for her children.

Everyone told her, “The baby will declare himself,” signaling whether he’s meant to live or die. “But,” says Malnight, “my only experience with motherhood was with these babies, in their isolettes. The thing was, we would put our hands over our son and he would open his eyes, his breathing would calm.”

“We just kind of muddled through,” she says. Her quadruplets are now 13 years old, and her son, while blind and brain-damaged, is a delightful and irreplaceable child.

Doerflinger acknowledges Malnight’s struggle: “Often there is no one right or wrong answer, but just an answer you think is best for your loved one in this particular situation, taking into account that patient’s own perspective and his or her ability to tolerate the burdens of treatment.”

The key, says Cathy Adamkiewicz, is “not to put our human parameters on the purpose of a human life.”

When she got her infant daughter’s prognosis from the neurologist, she told him, “You look at her as a dying system. I see a human being. Her life has value, not because of how much she can offer, but there is value in her life.”

“Our value,” Cathy says, “is not in our doing, but in our being. Doerflinger agrees, and emphasizes that “every life is a gift. Particular treatments may be a burden; no one’s life should be dismissed as a burden.”

He says that human life is “a great good, worthy of respect. At the same time, it is not our ultimate good, which lies in our union with God and each other in eternity. We owe to all our loved ones the kind of care that fully respects their dignity as persons, without insisting on every possible means for prolonging life even if it may impose serious risks and burdens on a dying patient. Within these basic guidelines, there is a great deal of room for making personal decisions we think are best for those we love.”

Because of this latitude, a living will is not recommended for Catholics. Legal documents of this kind cannot take into account specific, unpredictable circumstances that may occur. Instead, Catholic ethicists recommend drawing up an advance directive with a durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy. A trusted spokesman is appointed to make medical decisions that adhere to Church teaching.

Caregivers should do their best to get as much information as possible from doctors and consult any priests, ethicists, or theologians available—and then to give over care to the doctors, praying that God will guide their hearts and hands.

Terri Duhon found relief in submitting to the guidance of the Church when a sudden stroke caused her mother to choke. Several delays left her on a ventilator, with no brain activity. My husband and I couldn’t stand the thought of taking her off those machines. We wanted there to be a chance,” she says. But as the night wore on, she says, “We reached a point where it was an affront to her dignity to keep her on the machines.”

Duhon’s words can resonate with caregivers who make the choice either to extend life or to allow it to go: “I felt thankful that even though all of my emotion was against it, I had solid footing from the Church’s moral teaching. At least I wasn’t making the decision on my own.”

Adamkiewicz agrees. “It’s so terrifying and frustrating in a hospital,” she remembers. “I can’t imagine going through it without having our faith as our touchstone during those moments of fear.”

 *********

End of life resources

 

Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services (from the USCCB)

Evangelium Vitae

Pope John Paul II, To the Congress on Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State, 20 March 2004 

NCBCenter.org provides samples of an advance directive with durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy.

This article was originally published in Catholic Digest in 2013.

I’m a single-issue pro-lifer in a swing state, and I cannot vote for Trump

I’m a pro-lifer. I believe that the term “pro-life” encompasses so much more than abortion; but I also believe, as Flannery O’Connor says, that you can’t be any poorer than dead.

So when I vote, I vote for the candidate whose presidency will result in fewer dead babies, because you have to start somewhere.

Many of my friends who think the same way are voting for Trump. This is something I cannot do.

As a single-issue, pro-life, swing state voter, here’s what I know:

The President doesn’t just rush over from the swearing-in ceremony, wielding a copy of the Constitution and a Sharpie, passing laws or repealing laws by fiat. They are required to work with Congress. A President Hillary can’t just repeal the Hyde Amendment on her own, any more than a President Trump can’t just repeal Obamacare on his own. So if you’re voting for Trump just because you think Hillary will repeal the Hyde Amendment, then think again. The Hyde Amendment comes down to budgetary issues, and who passes the budget? Congress. So if you’re worried about specific legislation, think of who you’re voting for down ticket. They’re the ones who hold that power.

Presidents also don’t just show up at work and decide who’s going to be on the Supreme Court. The president can nominate someone, but then Congress must approve the nomination. Remember? Remember how Obama shamed the GOP by nominating Merrick Garland, who is widely known as a thoughtful, rigorous, non-partisan judge, and the GOP dug in its heels and blocked him out of spite? That’s how that works.

So if you’re voting for Trump just because of potential Supreme Court nominations, think again. The president can’t put anyone in place without congress’ say-so, and congress has shown that they’re more interested in vengeance and grandstanding than in anything to do with Roe v. Wade or any other pro-life legal case. They’ll say yes to any idiot Trump chooses if they think that idiot will grease their palms in matters that are actually important to them, and they’ll say no to any good judge he might accidentally choose if they think that it will impress their constituents to stand up to Trump.

Congress. Doesn’t. Care. About. Abortion.

Speaking of the Hyde Amendment and Obamacare, if the fate of tens of thousands of babies really does come down to funding, as I keep hearing from the “But the Hyde Amendment!” crowd, then riddle me this: The Hyde Amendment (and I keep accidentally typing “Hype Amendment,” which is pretty accurate) means that federal tax dollars can’t go for abortions. And it’s completely bogus. The federal government funnels millions and millions of tax dollars to Planned Parenthood, and has done so for years. Planned Parenthood is mainly in the abortion business. Money is fungible. Your tax dollars have been paying for abortions forever. The Hyde Amendment  is there so republicans can point to it and say, “SEE? This is why you have no choice but to vote for me!” That’s its only function.

But what about Obamacare? It’s a huge friggin’ mess. Lots of my friends are suffering because of it. But also, it pays for things like prenatal care for poor people who have no other insurance. It pays for thing like the delivery of babies, and for healthcare that keeps alive already-born babies (and children and teenagers, not to mention pregnant and non-pregnant women, and men). One of the reasons people seek abortion is because they think, “How can I possibly afford a baby?” And . . . Trump has sworn to repeal Obamacare.

So if you really believe that it’s mainly big government funding that makes the difference between life and death, you might as well vote Hillary, because she’s not talking about yanking Obamacare. (But those are ugly, leech-like Obamacare babies, not clean, noble Hyde Amendment babies, so screw ’em, right?)

Where do pro-life laws or pro-choice laws really come from, anyway? The president has all kinds of ways of influencing what kind of laws come before congress. The president can make deals with legislators, appointing people heads of committees, and promising rewards in return for favors done; and the president can occasionally pass executive orders or try to repeal certain laws, if they are extremely important to him and worth making a stand over.

But the political will and clout for big, important, life-changing laws come from the ground up, from the states and from individual communities. That’s where the momentum comes from. That’s how legislatures get the idea and the courage to introduce new bills: if they think their constituents will like it, and if they think someone will put money behind it. That’s also, frankly, how laws come before the Supreme Court: if someone has the stamina to keep challenging it, and if someone puts up the money to keep championing it.

I know you don’t want to hear that our legal system rises and falls on popular opinion and money, but it does. It’s really not mainly about who’s president. That’s simply not how it works.

So what happens (and what’s already happening) when pro-lifers openly support Trump and say that he represents our goals and values? Checks come pouring in to pro-choice candidates. Sane people take one look at him and say, “If that’s what it means to be pro-life, then helllllll, no.” A Trump presidency backed by pro-lifers would energize the pro-choice movement in ways we’ve never seen before, ever. Money, enthusiasm, legislative pressure, local and state election — all, all will go shrieking away from pro-lifers. And this is one thing that you really can pin directly on who’s president.

What happened during the Obama presidency? The pro-life movement was tremendously energized. Dozens and dozens of pro-life laws have been passed. Abortions have gone down. This is what it looks like when pro-lifers look at the president and say, “This is the enemy. Let’s fight back!” The very same thing will happen if Hillary is president.

And the very same thing will happen is Trump is president — only it won’t be pro-lifers saying it; it’ll be pro-choicers, and it will be pro-choice laws being passed, and pro-choice causes gaining clout and energy and donations. If I were pro-choice, I’d vote for Trump.

And now let’s talk about pregnant women in crisis. Let’s talk about how they get that way. Let’s talk about the fact that so very many pregnant women who seek abortion say they felt pressured into it. Where could that pressure possibly come from?

Maybe from men who treat them like sex objects. (This is how Donald Trump treats women, past, present, and future.)

Maybe from men who hear that their wife or girlfriend is pregnant and immediately see it as a problem. (This is how Donald Trump treated his wife.)

Maybe because they think they can’t afford to be pregnant and can’t afford to take care of a child. (Donald Trump doesn’t want poor women to have access to free healthcare.)

Maybe because they’re involved with a man who doesn’t feel any need to honor his promises. (Donald Trump is a rich man because he routinely backs out of his promises, refusing to pay contractors and declaring bankruptcy.)

Maybe because they’re living in a culture where men feel that they have a right to push their way into women’s lives, grab whatever they want from women, blame and shame women for anything that happens next, and leave whenever the relationship becomes inconvenient for him. (Donald Trump Donald Trump Donald Trump Donald Trump.)

Women end up having abortions mainly when they feel like they have no other choice: when they feel that their lives and their identities are only worthwhile if they’re more serviceable to people who have power over them.

And I have just described the world that Donald Trump builds around himself, and will continue to build as president.

Just yesterday, Baby Christian Trump said that a reporter’s accusation of sexual aggression isn’t credible because “look at her.” This is how he operates. This is how he sees women: as either pretty enough to be worthy of his sexual onslaught, or as too ugly to be worth anyone’s time.

Women seek abortion for a reason. Donald Trump, and the people who admire him and imitate him, are that reason. Trump has been telling us who he is. Pro-lifers, let’s believe him.

So how to vote, then?
-Vote for Hillary if you think she’ll be better, in the long run, for the unborn. Since I live in a swing state, this is probably what I will do, because I think it’s the least un-pro-life option.
-Vote for a third party candidate if you think he can’t win, but you just can’t stand to vote R or D.
-Vote for a third party candidate , or write in someone if you can, if you think your candidate won’t win, but it will crack open the monstrously dysfunctional two-party system that got us here in the first place.
-Leave your ballot blank, if you think that’s what this election deserves.

But don’t vote for Trump because you’re pro-life. It would be better to hang a millstone on your ballot and throw it into the sea.