Euthanasia threatens improvements in end-of-life care, experts say

A sister listens to a concerns of a resident at the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington. (CNS file/Nancy Wiechec)

A sister listens to a concerns of a resident at the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington. (CNS file/Nancy Wiechec)

By Carol Glatz Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Legalizing euthanasia risks undermining people’s access to loving, holistic care as they face the natural end of their life, many experts at a Vatican conference said.

As more parts of the world, like in Quebec last year, pass right-to-die legislation allowing the terminally ill to request lethal drugs, euthanasia is being treated as if it were a legitimate form of medical care, said a bishop from the province.

“Killing is not care. True care is palliative care because it is accompanying the person with compassion, true compassion,” Bishop Noel Simard of Valleyfield told Catholic News Service.

The bishop was one of more than 100 religious, medical and legal experts who attended a workshop March 6 dedicated to “Assisting the Elderly and Palliative Care,” sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life. He and others spoke with CNS the same day.

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said assisted suicide can pose a “threat” to working to improve palliative care.

Some places like Oregon and the Netherlands have seen that legalizing euthanasia “undermines the ability and willingness of doctors to practice this more difficult art of addressing patients’ real problems,” he said.

Supporters of euthanasia say it gives people more options to choose from for end-of-life care, Doerflinger said. “But as one doctor practicing in the Netherlands said, assisted suicide doesn’t get added to medicine, it replaces medicine,” he said.

He said if euthanasia becomes seen “as the quick fix, even fewer doctors will learn the real art of palliative care” for patients with a terminal disease; palliative care includes pain control, treatment of depression and other symptoms, along with spiritual care.

Bishop Simard said palliative care allows patients to experience real dignity with dying.

“The last moments of your life are important. Sometimes they are moments where you can reconcile with other family members, when you can just accept the reality of the promise of eternal life,” especially when patients can receive absolution and the sacrament of the sick, he said.

“When you just give a person a lethal injection, you may deprive the person of this very important moment for himself and with family members,” the bishop added.

Doerflinger said part of the issue is a “can-do” pragmatic attitude in a culture that has “almost an obsession with solving problems.”

“Assisted suicide offers the illusion” that dying can be “fixed,” he said, “but it doesn’t solve the problem, it just eliminates the person telling you that he has the problem.”

People have a natural fear of pain and of becoming a burden to others, Doerflinger said. But when they can receive medical care to alleviate their pain and along with compassionate support to relieve their sense of hopelessness, “the desire for suicide vanishes,” he said.

“Often even the initial request for death is really a call for help. It’s not saying, ‘I want to die,’ it’s saying, ‘I don’t want to be like this,'” and palliative care can address those problems, he said. “Ultimately the solution is love,” Doerflinger said.

The best people to offer that love for the elderly and dying is the family, said Carter Snead, director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

“It would be an easy thing for us to say that it’s the job of the government, the job of social service agencies to care for the elderly but that’s kind of passing the buck in a way that lets us off the hook in a way that’s not appropriate and not just,” Snead said.

“The government can’t love you, and we love our family, and to show that love, we have to care for them,” he said.

Robert Buchanan, a neurosurgeon at the University of Texas in Austin and a psychiatrist, said that every person he spoke to who “had a failed suicide attempt would wake up from trying to kill themselves and say, ‘I’m glad that didn’t happen. I’m glad to be alive.'”

“But where there is this organized euthanizing process” that administers a lethal injection, “there is no chance for a second chance,” he said.

Joan Panke, a nurse practitioner in the Washington, D.C., area who specializes in palliative care, said effective pain management is the critical first step so patients can “get to what was more important: the spiritual, existential, family concerns.” She said so many patients have told her “that their symptoms are so severe that they can’t even pray.”

In addition to pharmacological and medical support, healthcare providers must be better listeners and communicators with a more human touch, Panke said.

She recalled how her late father, who was a general surgeon, interacted with patients: “He’d pull up a chair, sit with a patient; he knew how to connect, how to communicate.”

With patients and family members, she said, it is “not so much what we say, but how we listen” and try to decipher unspoken concerns, especially through body language and other nonverbal clues, she said.

Doctors, nurses and social workers should have more “reflective time in their training” as well as supportive mentors and guides, said Panke. “And I think society as a whole needs to better understand what the experience of illness and death is because it’s so basic to our human experience.”

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Contributing to this story was Elliot Williams at the Vatican.

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