2012 Ethics and Medics: Is Catholic Ethics a “House Divided”?

In the May 2012, Ethics and Medics, a publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), published my article Is Catholic Ethics a “House Divided?”:

There is no question that traditional Catholic healthcare ethics is under fire, especially in the media. From nightly crime and medical dramas to the standard news stories of the day, Catholic ethics is routinely portrayed as cruelly rigid, inscrutable, or even outright dangerous to public health.
A case in point is the December 4, 2011, lead story for the CBS Sunday Morning show. The story, titled “The Catholic Church: A House Divided?,”focused on the 2010 decision of Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, Arizona, to remove the Catholic status of St.
Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, because of an abortion performed there on an eleven-week-old unborn child whose mother was ill with life-threatening pulmonary hypertension.The chief medical officer at St. Joseph’s Hospital stated in an interview that the abortion was medically necessary to save the mother’s life. Adding fuel to the media fire, the CBS show reported that Bishop Olmstead excommunicated Sister Margaret Mary McBride, RSM, administrator and member of the ethics committee at St. Joseph’s Hospital for approving the abortion.
The story portrayed the issue as one where abortion was the only medical solution. But was this true? CBS suggested that Sr. McBride, and American women religious in general, were being punished by a dogmatic and out-of-touch Catholic hierarchy. Again, was this true?  And what exactly were the details surrounding the excommunication of Sr. McBride? Was it, as the CBS show implied, an arbitrary exercise of power?
The Untold Story

The real story behind the St. Joseph’s Hospital abortion tragedy and its consequences is much more complicated than that depicted by the CBS show. Unfortunately, the average Catholic is unlikely to encounter clear and thoughtful explanations of the Church’s governing principles in cases such as this, especially if he or she depends primarily on the media for information. Thus it is not surprising that Catholic patients and families who are suddenly faced with ethical dilemmas find themselves confused and troubled by differing opinions about what is the best course of action, even at Catholic hospitals. This is a grave problem that I have seen often during my forty-two years as a nurse.

In the case of the abortion at St. Joseph’s Hospital, not surprisingly, given media hostility toward the Catholic Church, quite a lot of information was left out of the CBS Sunday Morning report, that is, facts that would have
been helpful to future patients and families who will face similar decisions. Too often, Catholics find themselves on the defensive because they do not know the actual teaching of their own moral tradition. The Church’s prohibition against direct abortion makes both moral and practical
sense because it is rooted in natural moral law and in scientific fact.
In the case at St. Joseph’s Hospital, the Church’s prohibition against direct abortion was not a hard-hearted dogma designed to force the death of a mother, but rather it was a commitment to both lives involved. There is an enormous difference between terminating the life of an unborn child (a direct abortion) and treating a serious or even life-threatening condition of the mother that may lead to the unfortunate but foreseeable death of the unborn. The classic example of a pregnant woman with uterine cancer, where the diseased organ must be removed along with the unborn child, is justifiable under the principle of double effect. The object of the act is the removal of an unhealthy organ. The death of the child is foreseen but not intended.
In the case at St. Joseph’s Hospital, there was no diseased organ to be removed, and the child, of course, was healthy. Although women with pulmonary hypertension are advised to avoid pregnancy because the risk of pregnancy-related death is substantial (reported to be 30 to 50 percent 1), tremendous advances have been made in treating pulmonary hypertension in pregnant and nonpregnant patients. In addition, although the media
rarely report it, abortion poses physical and emotional risks to even a healthy mother in the first trimester of pregnancy. Bishop Olmstead determined that the hospital’s medical staff and ethics committee had decided to perform an abortion rather than treat the woman’s disease.2
The CBS program ignored these facts. The other major controversy presented in the report was whether Bishop Olmstead had overstepped his bounds by revoking the Catholic status of the hospital and by  excommunicating Sr.McBride. Were these actions a sudden and rash decision of an authoritarian monarch, as most secular media and
even some Catholic critics claimed? Hardly. There was along and complex history behind these events, a history that continues to show itself in Catholic Healthcare West’s recent decision to abandon its Catholic identity.
As Bishop Olmstead made clear in his December 2010 statement, he spent months discussing with officials of the hospital and Catholic Healthcare West not just this abortion but what the bishop determined to be a pattern of behavior that violated the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, the governing document for Catholic health care institutions.
According to Bishop Olmstead’s, this behavior included administering contraceptives, contraceptive counseling, voluntary sterilizations, and abortions in cases of rape, incest, and even for the benefit of the mental health of the mother—a dubious medical claim. Bishop Olmstead expressed his reluctance to remove the Catholic status of the hospital and stated that “the Catholic faithful are free to seek care or to offer care at St. Joseph’s Hospital, but I cannot guarantee that the care provided will be in full accord with the teachings of the Church.”3
Bishop Olmstead said that he had had discussions for years with Catholic Healthcare West, the parent company of St. Joseph’s Hospital, about resolving violations of the Ethical and Religious Directives but that CHW had refused to comply. Those directives recognize a bishop’s essential responsibility over Catholic health care institutions:“As teacher, the diocesan bishop ensures the moral and religious identity of the health care ministry in whatever setting it is carried out in the diocese.”4
The CBS Sunday Morning show criticized Bishop Olmstead for excommunicating Sr. McBride, but in fact he privately informed her that she had incurred an excommunication latae sententiae, that is, that it happened automatically at the procurement of the completed abortion. Canon 1398 states, “a person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” Of course, there are extenuating circumstances, such as intention or coercion, that could mitigate the penalty of excommunication, but this is far from the liberal feminist cause célèbre that the CBS Sunday Morning show would have its viewers believe.
A Deeper Problem
As troubling as is the media criticism and lack of depth, it is the confusion spread by Catholic sources that is arguably the most damaging, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a thoughtful statement on the case, ignored, of course, by the media.5 But it was also ignored by prominent Catholic organizations and theologians.
The Catholic Health Association, claiming to include more than six hundred hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in all fifty states, issued a strong statement in support of the abortion and of the hospital.6 Marquette University professor and theologian M. Therese Lysaught, hired by St. Joseph’s Hospital to provide an “independent” analysis, denied that the termination was a direct abortion.7 Such events lead many devout Catholics to scratch their heads. They wonder whom they can trust when it comes to making health care decisions in the light of Catholic teaching.
The real-world consequences of such division within the Church are frightening. The American Civil Liberties Union, citing the abortion case at St. Joseph’s Hospital,already complained to federal health officials that “no hospital—religious or otherwise—should be prohibited from saving women’s lives and from following federal law.”8 The Obama administration’s February 2011 revision of a federal protection of conscience rights regulation has left both health care professionals and institutions vulnerable to litigation and coercion.
A consistent ethical standard of care is crucial for protecting patients as well as Catholic health care itself. Reliability builds trust, an indispensable component of good health care that appeals to both Catholics and non-
Catholics alike in this uncertain health care environment. At a time when hospitals are competing for patients,Catholic hospitals can stand out by offering both the best technology and the best standard of ethics.
Bishop Olmstead’s difficult decision to revoke the Catholic status of St. Joseph’s Hospital exposed the problem of Catholic institutions and ethicists who ignore or reinterpret many of the clear and definitive principles of the Ethical and Religious Directives to justify certain practices. Generations have gratefully entrusted their confidence, respect, and donations to Catholic health care institutions in order to build up the wonderful system of care that we have. Catholic institutions must now prove themselves worthy of that trust.
Nancy Valko, RN, is a contributing editor for Voices, president
of Missouri Nurses for Life, and a spokesman for the National
Association of Pro-Life Nurses.
1
Scientific Leadership Council, “Birth Control and Hormonal Thera-
py in Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension,” Consensus statement,
2
Thomas J. Olmsted, “St. Joseph’s Hospital No Longer Catholic:
Statement of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted,” December 21, 2010,
3
Ibid., 3.
4
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,
Ethical and Religious Directives
for Catholic Health Care Services,
5th ed. (Washington, DC: USCCB,
2009), General Introduction.
5
USCCB Committee on Doctrine, “The Distinction between Direct
Abortion and Legitimate Medical Procedures,” June 23, 2010.
6
Catholic Health Association, “Catholic Health Association State
-ment regarding St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in
Phoenix,” December 22, 2010, http://chausa.org/newsdetail.
aspx?id=2147488971.
7
Jerry Filteau, “No Direct Abortion at Phoenix Hospital, Theologian
Says,”National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2010, ncronline.
org/news/no-direct-abortion-phoenix-hospital-theologian-says.
8
Rob Stein, “Abortion Fight at Catholic Hospital Pushes ACLU
to Seek Federal Help,”Washington Post, December 22, 2010,
/AR2010122206219.ht

 

1996 National Catholic Register: A Compassionate Response

A Compassionate Response

 Sunday, Nov 10, 1996 1:00 PM Comment

In 1992, David and Anne Andis had a little girl with anencephaly whom they named Emma. Although an ultrasound showed the possibility of anencephaly only 10 weeks into the pregnancy, David and Anne, who are not Catholic, made the decision not to abort but found little support or information on dealing with their family’s crisis.

Although Emma lived only five days after birth, the Andises found that being able to know and love Emma during her short life was a meaningful and healing experience for them and their family. In response to their situation, they helped to start the Anencephaly Support Foundation to help other parents, families, and friends deal with the physical and emotional challenges of having (and losing) a baby with anencephaly. They now give such practical tips as the best kind of bottle to use if the baby can suckle and how to care for the skull defect as well as linking parents with other parents who have had children with anencephaly.

David and Anne are also spearheading an effort to establish a national birth defects registry and federal funding to study the causes of birth defects, hoping this information will lead to some answers and help prevent future babies from dying. Currently, low levels of the vitamin folic acid has been linked to the incidence of anencephaly but further research is considered warranted.

The Andises maintain an Internet site and also recently produced a videotape called The Anencephalic: A Suitable Donor? which deals with the controversial subject of using anencephalic infants as organ donors before death.

The Anecephaly Support Foundation can be reached by the Internet address http://www.asfhelp.com or by the toll-free phone number 1-888-206-7526.

Nancy Valko

1994: An Exchange on”The Sanctity of Life Seduced”

In April 1994, First Things magazine published an article titled “The Sanctity of Life Seduced: A Symposium on Medical Ethics”. The article consisted of an essay by Daniel Callahan, then president of the Hastings Center,  on the so-called “persistent vegetative state” and the issue of tube feedings. The article also contained several responses by some prominent ethicists.

I wrote my my own lengthy response to Mr. Callahan in a letter to the editor and, to my surprise, it was published in the August edition of the magazine along with his response to my letter.

Here is the published exchange:

An Exchange on Life and Death

While I was fascinated by Daniel Callahan’s article in  “The Sanctity of Life Seduced”  and the responses to it (April), I was concerned by the automatic acceptance of some facts and conclusions that do not hold up under scrutiny. As we all know, good ethics must be backed by accurate facts.

Take the “persistent vegetative state,” an offensive and dehumanizing term coined in 1972 and used to describe a level of brain injury that assumes the permanent loss of upper brain function. Proponents of not feeding the “vegetative” have long been frustrated by the lack of a diagnostic test for this condition and the surprising number of reports of “vegetative” people who recover, sometimes even to full mental function. This includes not only media stories about people such as Carrie Coons, but also studies like the one reported in the June 1991 issue of Archives of Neurology which found that 58 percent of people with a firm diagnosis of PVS recovered consciousness within the three-year follow-up interval of the study. Just as importantly, the researchers were unable to identify factors that could predict in advance which patients will ultimately wake up. It is hard to escape the conclusion that PVS has become a political, rather than a medical, diagnosis.

As a nurse who has personally witnessed the recovery of supposedly hope less patients, I am not surprised by these studies and reports. What has surprised and frightened me is the practical reality that many brain- injured people are no longer even given the chance to recover. For example, families have been told that their brain-injured loved one has a nil or virtually nil chance of recovery within hours after the precipitating event despite the lack of certitude. The false picture of Nancy Cruzan as an unmoving, unresponsive corpse hooked up to an array of machinery is a powerful and terrifying image to these families in crisis. It does a terrible injustice to people for us doctors, nurses, and ethicists to pretend to know things we cannot know- presumably in order to spare patients and their families potential further suffering. Have we become so callous about death that we can be comfortable with denying a person even a chance at recovery?

Another fact Mr. Callahan’s article fails to mention is that the controversy over assisted feeding has spilled over to other care and other conditions. For example, the non-technological spoon-feeding of the supposedly “vegetative” Christine Busalacchi was considered just as ethically useless as tube feeding by Fr. Kevin O’Rourke, the director of the Center for Health Care Ethics at St. Louis University . . . . It has proved both legally and ethically impossible to limit non-feeding to just the “vegetative.” The result has been the opening of a virtual Pandora’s box of ethically rationalized death decisions such as rationing and even, in some cases, physician-assisted suicide.

I also must take issue with the anti-technology conclusions of Mr. Callahan. I fear he forgets that medical innovations, both technological and non-technological, result from a desire to cure, treat, or palliate suffering conditions, not out of a desire to torture people. For example, feeding tubes were not invented over one hundred years ago to “cure death” or interfere with the peaceful, painless deaths our ancestors supposedly had. Feeding tubes were invented to relieve real cases of real suffering. For example, it would be maddening to watch a three-year-old starve to death because his throat was irreparably burned. It is thus not surprising that some compassionate person would invent a way to feed people who cannot swallow.

Mr. Callahan is right when he describes an “inability to eat” or “a failing desire to eat” as a part of the natural dying process. This is true, for example, in end-stage cancer when, as organs fail, the body cannot assimilate or excrete food and fluids. In these cases, we do not deny food and fluids, but rather we give people what little they desire or need. Feeding tubes are not instituted in these cases because food and water are futile and would cause more discomfort as fluids build up in the body. These people do not dehydrate to death; they die of their cancer.

However, it is a very different matter in situations of anorexia nervosa, obstruction, paralysis, diminished consciousness, etc. To equate the inability to walk to a refrigerator or to get food past a damaged esophagus, etc., with a true dying process is patently false. Moreover, while truly dying people experience little if any discomfort from a reduced intake, dehydration is a miserable condition for the non- dying. I often care for people with an admitting diagnosis of dehydration. Quite frankly, these people feel and look rotten. They are weak, frightened, and often confused. After successful treatment, they perk up and are elated with the change in their condition. We are not prolonging death, we are treating an uncomfortable condition.

After twenty-five years of nursing, dealing with bioethical issues on both a personal and professional basis, and serving on both medical and nursing ethics committees, I have witnessed a sea change in ethics from what is right to what is legal to now what is cost-effective . Even the newly sacrosanct ethic of family or individual “choice” regarding a right to die is fast eroding under the juggernaut of new ethical thought that redefines “futility” and agonizes over “wasting” health care resources. Witness the recent case where a young Detroit couple were replaced as guardians after failed attempts by health care providers to induce them to discontinue the treatment of their critically ill, brain-damaged two-month-old.

Recovery is now being redefined as full or near-normal return of mental and physical function, which flies in the face of the reality all of us in health care know and reinforces the unhappy bias that the disabled have long tried to dispel.

Mr. Callahan presents us a false choice between either an awful, technologically prolonged death or a simple, painless passage into the Great Beyond without “technology.” Instead, I have often presided at the deaths of people where the only medical interventions employed were to provide comfort. I have often silently blessed the discoverers of morphine, oxygen tubes, and air beds as I held hands with the dying patient and his or her family.

I have also silently wondered at the great gift of life as I fed, washed, and talked to the comatose, the confused, the severely disabled, and the truly dying. I have often sat with families and patients discussing do-not-resuscitate orders, the pros and cons of treatments, hopes and dreams, and inevitably, in some cases, how death will come. Not once did I feel that the patient or I was diminished in dignity or wasting health care resources.

Thus, I must take exception to Mr. Callahan’s view that health care providers are prone to a “technological seduction.” I am just one of many doctors and nurses who advocate against overtreatment just as strongly as we advocate against undertreatment. But medicine is not perfect; mistakes do happen. Just as some people die during a simple appendectomy, outcomes are often unpredictable. Decisions about technology are not automatically wrong if the outcome is less than hoped for or expected.

Rather than fighting a supposed “technological seduction,” I submit that the biggest problem in ethics today is a “death seduction.” I suspect that it is a fear of loss of control and a disdain for dependency, as well as a fascination with cost/benefit analysis, rather than an acceptance of inevitable death that leads many ethicists to support the so-called “right to die.” (Oddly, the development of newer and exotic technologies such as in vitro fertilization have been virtually immune from a similar cost/analysis and criticism of technological seduction.)

Sadly, Mr. Callahan’s views inevitably distort the reality of inevitable death for all of us into a “duty to die” for some of us.

Nancy Guilfoy Valko, R.N.
St. Louis, MO

Daniel Callahan replies:

I find Ms. Valko’s letter somewhat baffling, uncertain whether we disagree as much as she implies or whether I have made the factual errors she attributes to me. She begins by talking about the persistent vegetative state, noting that there have been many mistaken diagnoses. But at no place in my article did I discuss the special problem of diagnosing the condition. In fact, I fully agree with her about the many mistakes that have been made, and no less agree that it’s wrong to give up on patients too quickly; of course every patient should have a chance at recovery.

I think she is herself wrong, however, to say that “PVS has become a political, rather than a medical, diagnosis.” The problem is that any diagnosis of the syndrome (it is not a specific disease) must be probabilistic and based on indirect evidence. This is also true of Alzheimer’s Disease, definitively diagnosable only in a postmortem autopsy-but no one doubts the existence of such a condition. As Ms. Valko herself says at the end of her letter, “medicine is not perfect; mistakes do happen.” Why does she not apply her own standard in the case of mistaken diagnoses of PVS, instead of implying it is a fictitious condition?

It is quite true that I did not mention that “the controversy over assisted feeding has spilled over to other care and other conditions.” I was not trying to write an article on the full range of conditions under which it might, or might not, be justified to terminate treatment. I have done that in The Troubled Dream of Life and, with her, I do not believe it right to limit feeding under any of the circumstances she mentions. I also agree that a person who cannot walk to a refrigerator is not dying and I have explicitly denied there is evidence to show we are “wasting” money on the dying (in Setting Limits , pp. 130-133).

I do not believe that I come to anti-technological conclusions. Technology can not only helpfully and validly save and extend life, but it can also provide many means of comfort for the critically ill and dying. My concern is our culture’s obsession with technology, which too often leads us to use it unthinkingly and insensitively. As I said in the article, “If technology threatens to leave us worse off, and we nonetheless feel obliged to use it, we have then indeed become its slaves.” I also argued that “doctors should feel as great an anxiety that a patient will die a poor death from technological excess as the present anxiety that the patient will die because there is too little technology.” When she says that she worries both about undertreatment as well as overtreatment, it seems to me that Ms. Valko and I are not that far apart.

Finally, I find no basis whatever in the article I wrote for saying that my “views inevitably distort the reality of inevitable death for all of us into a ‘duty to die’ for some of us.” I reject totally the idea of a duty to die, and always have. It is unwarranted and insulting to attribute that view to me.