I admit it. I read obituaries in the newspaper, not out of morbid curiosity, but because I’m reminded that every single human life matters. Some died tragically in their youth; others lived lengthy and apparently fulfilling lives, including a remarkable number who make it past 100. Some people were rich and famous; others, more simple or ordinary. Each obituary is different; but, every one affirms that no matter who we are, life has value.Obituaries highlight the positive notes of people’s lives, but end-of-life issues are usually not highlighted at all. People are afraid to talk about death and therefore, are reluctant to talk about the kind of care and treatment they would want if they were somehow incapacitated. But as Catholics, we should not fear when faced with decisions about the end of life.
In their recently released question and answer booklet, What You Should Know about Advance Health Care Directives, the Bishops of Pennsylvania remind us that “death is not to be feared as the end of our existence, rather it is the doorway to our eternal destiny.” They encourage Catholics to plan ahead for the end of earthly life by signing a living will and health care power of attorney.
A living will is a written document that gives instructions about how you want to be treated if you are terminally ill and cannot speak for yourself. A health care power of attorney is a written document that names a specific person to make health care decisions for you. Together these documents are considered an advance health care directive.
For Catholics, health care decisions should be made in the light of our Faith. A Catholic must consider the sanctity and dignity of life when discussing and planning an advance directive. Having an advance directive gives a Catholic a way to profess the Faith and helps to ensure that the decisions about the care received, when he or she cannot speak or decide, are made in accord with Catholic religious beliefs.
As Catholics, we believe that God is the author of all life. We believe that we have a responsibility to preserve life. What does that mean to a person who is permanently unconscious or in a vegetative state?
The question about medically assisted nutrition and hydration must be answered by considering the patient’s status. For example, if a patient has terminal cancer and his or her death is imminent, removing a feeding tube may be morally acceptable. In fact, continuing the medically assisted feeding may mean the patient will endure greater pain.
But, this situation is very different from those in which a patient is severely or chronically incapacitated, but not dying. In this case a patient should not refuse or discontinue the medically assisted nutrition and hydration that is capable of sustaining his or her life.
In the culture of death, the idea of sustaining life, even if no “recovery” will occur is hard for some to accept. Many people get caught up with the idea of, “I wouldn’t want to live like that” or “I don’t want to watch my loved one suffer.” But in the same way that we honor all the souls in death on the obituary page, no matter their station in life, we must remember that each of us has dignity and sanctity in life, no matter how that life is perceived. Life is to be cherished, even if it is lived in a permanently unconscious or in a chronic, non-terminal condition.
PCC Column December 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.
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The new Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney form and What You Should Know about Advance Health Care Directives documents are available free of charge on the website of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) at pacatholic.org, or contact the PCC to purchase the booklet (price: $1): PO Box 2835, Harrisburg, PA 17105, phone: 717-238-9613 or FAX: 717-238-1473.