Q. My mother has instructed us not to use life support if she becomes ill. Is that morally acceptable?
A. This is such a complex and difficult issue. It’s a good thing that you are working through this now so that, when the issue becomes more immediate, you are able to clearly navigate these troubled waters.
To all who are worried about “end of life” issues, I encourage a frank discussion with your family about what your wishes and hopes are. When struggling with the immediacy of approaching death, our hearts will be filled with sorrow and worry and, by having this discussion, we can free ourselves as much as possible to enter into our mourning with hearts, minds and souls in union with each other and the Church.
The Church gives us a solid, easy-to-read guide on these issues. You can find it on the Internet at the U.S. Bishops’ website. The name of the article is Ethical and Religious directives for Catholic Health Care Services (4th edition). You can find it at http://www.usccb.org.
It’s a substantial article, and I really can’t reprint the whole thing here, but I’ll quote a bit of it, and mostly focus on “this is what this means…”
With that in mind, the first two points center around the idea of “proportional means.” In a nutshell, we want to make sure our efforts to preserve someone’s life balance a reasonable hope of help that person without being too much burden for the family or community.
This ties into a key point about food and drink: We must provide nutrition and hydration unless the person is unable to absorb them or is near the moment of death.
The fourth point is very important for your particular question: we must respect the “free and informed judgment made by a competent adult” when it comes to removing extraordinary life-saving procedures, as long as they don’t contradict what we read here.
In the next point, the Church reminds us that we shouldn’t substitute our judgment for the judgment of the patient. When an adult, with a clear and informed mind or heart, makes their wishes known, we should always respect that, provided that what they want doesn’t contradict the Church’s moral teaching.
We simply must never euthanize someone. The Church defines euthanasia in the following way: “Euthanasia is an action or omission that by itself or by intention causes death in order to alleviate suffering.” Instead, we should make sure that those who seek euthanasia receive all the loving spiritual and psychological care that they need.
When we talk about pain, the Church reminds us that we want to balance the importance of keeping the person “as free of pain as possible” with the person’s right to prepare for death while fully conscious. We can give dying people that will help their pain, even if it may shorten their life as long as our intent is to alleviate the pain. Here again, we remember that God can even use our pain to draw us deeper into our relationship with him and we shouldn’t hesitate to share this idea with those we love.
Next, the Church wraps a couple points together: we are encouraged to provide means for people to donate their organs and bodily tissue. This is important. At the same time, we should make sure that the competent person who declares our loved one dead is not, in fact, a member of the “organ donation team”. Such a conflict of interest can cause undue pain and worry for the family.
To be clear, I’ve only briefly summarized this fairly important document here: I’ve left out points that don’t pertain directly to this issue and, in the interest of brevity, I’ve simplified things.
I strongly encourage everyone to read this excellent document and have a healthy discussion with your families about this.
When someone we love is suffering, it’s important that we remember and balance the amazing truth of their human dignity with our fervent belief that there is real spiritual value in suffering. This is a tough issue and armed with our love for each other and our common faith, we can get through this.
Don’t forget to talk to your pastor about this and seek his guidance as well!
In the meantime, be assured of my prayers.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence.
Father Joe Krupp is a former comedy writer who is now a Catholic priest.