Commentary

LIVING WILLS – A DEATH SENTENCE?

The recent fight to save the life of Terry Shiavo brought to light a growing trend in our society to accept euthanasia as part of our culture. In the case of Terry Shiavo, which is still not settled, the courts have allowed the deliberate killing of someone who is creating an inconvenient situation for her spouse. (See the related articles in this issue.) What makes her case so sad is that her own Bishop (Lynch of Florida), in a despicable case of ignoring the teachings of the Church, sided in favor of euthanasia. The fact that only a few other bishops in the United States saw fit to challenge his position makes it even sadder.

What really is euthanasia? It amounts to doing, or not doing, something to intentionally bring about a patient’s death.

It is not euthanasia to administer medication needed to control pain. That is called good medical care. It is not euthanasia to stop treatment that is gravely burdensome to a patient. This is called letting the patient exercise the moral option to refuse extraordinary medical means to be kept alive. It is not euthanasia to stop tube feeding a patient whose diseased or injured body can no longer assimilate food and water. This is called simply accepting death. All of these may allow death, but do not bring death to the patient. This is quite a difference. To over-medicate, to stop needed medical treatment, or to remove food and water (that is being assimilated) in order to cause death is euthanasia.

Euthanasia could be called a form of suicide, assisted suicide, or even murder, depending upon the patient’s level of involvement and consent.Because most of us do not like the idea of getting rid of patients who may be creating problems for a family or a burden on a hospital or government, the euthanasia movement is GRADUALLY moving to have these three forms of death (suicide, assisted suicide and murder) of certain persons accepted by society. The euthanasia movement is encouraging those who are sick to “get out of the way.” They are putting pressure on states to allow hastening of death, and on society to accept these three methods of death. The primary tools in this effort have been the ‘Living Will,’ other so-called ‘advance directives,’ and the laws implementing them.

Many people believe that having a Living Will is going to prevent euthanasia. Not true! Typically, a Living Will instructs medical personnel to stop ‘medical treatment’ when the patient is in a ‘terminal’ condition. Other advanced directives, such as ‘Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care’, appoint a third party to give this type of instruction for the patient. These documents are intended to take effect when a patient can no longer make his or her own decision.

The term ‘medical treatment’ today is often interpreted to include giving food and water through a tube. Sometimes the wording of a Living Will is so vague that a patient may not realize that by signing it, he or she may be requesting starvation and dehydration in certain circumstances. In fact, sometimes a Living Will is so unclear that even doctors and nurses are unable to determine whether a patient wants to be given food and water when the patient is unable to communicate.

In 1991 the Congress of the US passed the Patient Self-Determination Act (PSDA). It says that facilities which receive federal funds (almost all hospitals) must give adult patients, at the time of their admission, written information on the ‘advanced directives’ that are legally available. In practice, this federal requirement can make people think that they must have an ‘advanced directive’. They may then feel pressured to sign a Living Will or Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care that could have the effect of stopping medical care and treatment that may be necessary to save their lives.

The popular perception about the Living Will – that it allows a person to refuse unwanted medical treatment which unnecessarily prolongs impending death -- seems harmless. The problem is that the Living Will, as it is now interpreted in most states, allows not just the refusal or withdrawal of truly ‘extraordinary medical treatment’ but food and water, and any medical treatment, even if death is not near.

A gradual redefinition of key terms in ‘advanced directives’ has changed ‘medical treatment’ to include basic care such as food and water, and ‘terminal’ to include people who are not even dying. An example of this is the court’s treatment of Terri Schiavo. She was declared terminal although she has never been near death. Her husband attempted to cause her death by starvation and dehydration.

Many people, including Terri’s bishop, and a growing number of medical personnel, believe that making some people die by starvation and dehydration is preferable to letting them live in a debilitated condition. The so-called ‘quality of life’ mentality is the product of the euthanasia movement and an increasingly secular culture touting ‘choice’ and ‘rights’ but no longer believing in the sacredness of human life.

Our culture is now giving serious consideration to a quicker form of euthanasia using lethal injection by our doctors. Today’s society must think the only thing wrong with Hitler was that he was ahead of his time when he eliminated those “useless feeders” who were in the mental clinics. He then went on to the physically handicapped and then those whom he considered undesirable others.

The euthanasia movement contends that ‘self-determination’ is a ‘right’, and that everyone should have a ‘choice.’ Currently, the movement is working to legalize, on a state-by-state basis, doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill who ask for it. The next step will be the ‘right’ of individuals to have themselves killed even though they are not terminally ill. And if, people have a claim on the mercy of others to relieve their suffering, why do such people have to ask for a lethal injection? If it is better to be dead than suffering from a perceived ‘low quality of life’ can it be ‘fair’ for instance to deny the demented person or the mentally retarded such ‘relief’? Court decisions have already allowed the tube feeding of certain mentally disabled patients to be stopped even though these patients never expressed such a desire and were not terminally ill or even suffering. We can look into the future by looking at the Netherlands which has had legalized assisted suicide for years. A recent government survey found that in 61 percent of the cases in which lethal injections were given to terminate life, the doctors did not have the patient’s consent.

One can easily see we are sliding into the culture of ‘Hitler” Germany where we are accepting such a thing as “life is not worthy to be lived” and allowing the government to determine whose life is not worthy.

What can you do? We must protect those who cannot protect themselves. We must support causes like Terri Shiavo. The Defenders of the Faith, Inc., as part of the Catholic Media Coalition, has played a role in her defense. We intend to continue to support her as well as others in similar circumstances. We need to encourage the election of those who defend life at all stages of life. What can you do personally? You can get an acceptable Living Will and Durable Power of Attorney. The American Life League, Inc. (ALL) has both of these forms for free. Give them a call at 540-659-4171 and ask for their ‘Loving Will’ kit. The ‘Loving Will’ is a document that tells your doctor and other health care professionals how to take care of you if you become so sick that you are unable to communicate your wishes. In short it instructs relevant personnel to do nothing intentionally, by act or omission, to cause your death.

Jim Fritz

 

 

Return to Top

Close this window to return to current Commentary Page.