Texas bishops offer guidance on end-of-life issues

By Peggy Moraczewski

The Texas Catholic Conference (TCC) recently hosted an event on end-of-life issues at St. Edward’s University in Austin. Panels comprised of distinguished religious and professional individuals educated attendees regarding end-of-life care policies, principles and pastoral care.  
The TCC is the public policy voice of the Catholic bishops of Texas. This particular forum addressed the Texas Advance Directive Act (TADA) passed in 1999 and communicated how a bill, such as Senate Bill 303 (SB303), would enhance the original TADA. SB303 passed the Texas Senate in 2013, but did not make it to the House floor prior to the end of the legislative session. A new bill, with a new number, will be introduced during the 2015 session.
Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso provided some background, explaining that, although the (1999 TADA) law is not perfect, bishops and pro-life groups supported the law, regarding it as incremental legislation. 
“The structure of the law provides basic protection and seeks to respect human dignity,” he said. A conflict with Catholic teaching occurs because, according to Texas law, artificial nutrition and hydration can be withdrawn.
Saint John Paul II provided clarity about life-sustaining treatments: A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a “vegetable” or an “animal”.  
The sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end, still has the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.), according to the International Congress on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas from 2004.
Individual panelists focused on specific components of the overall topic. Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth, and Jennifer Carr Allmon, associate director of the TCC, shared current points of the law that are challenging and essential objective criteria that would improve the law.
Referencing SB303 as an example of recommended changes to TADA, Bishop Olson stated that, “while far from a perfect proposal, (it) is a vast improvement over the current law and without it we will never move forward in protecting the basic rights of the chronically ill and disabled. It is an important measure against the euthanasia and assisted suicide movement. It is fundamentally in consort with Catholic moral teaching.”
Beyond the issue of nutrition and hydration, Allmon said it is very problematic that the law is silent on do not resuscitate (DNR) orders and the law also needs to clarify issues surrounding an ethics committee review. 
As co-chair of the Seton Medical Center Ethics Committee, cardiologist Dr. David Zientek, provided insight into how stressful end-of-life issues are for everyone involved, including the dying patient, family and friends, physicians and medical staff. Cases brought to the ethics committee are rare and the vast majority of decisions are done at the patient’s bedside. 
Keynote speaker, Dr. John M. Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), emphasized the intrinsic dignity of the human person. 
“We don’t eliminate suffering by eliminating the person who is suffering,” he said.
He pointed out that as Catholics, we become one with Christ and unite our pain with his suffering on Calvary. In the case of a person nearing the end of life, palliative care is appropriate and encouraged in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 
Pastoral care for end-of-life issues brought the discussion full-circle. Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, said, “Pastoral care is about relationship. Remembering who we are dealing with, that beautiful child of God needs to be held sacred, even to death. It involves walking with the family and individual through the process of the disease until the moment, by God’s choice, life ceases.”
Deacon Charlie Stump, director of pastoral services for the Diocese of Dallas, shared his extensive personal experiences and grasp of pastoral care of the dying. He generously offered to share his presentation on advance directives with any parish interested in starting a Pastoral Care Ministry.
Father Louis Brussati, associate professor at St. Edward’s University and member of the Seton Ethics Committee, reminded attendees that the letting-go-of-life is very different for many people. Early on in his pastoral training at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Mo., he recalled terror in the eyes of a dying man who believed in absolutely nothing. His compassionate advice included, “It’s OK to let go; God is there.”
Resources for patients, families and surrogates, are available through NCBC at www.ncbcenter.org. Resources include a “Catholic Guide to End-of-Life Decisions,” a help line with free consultation services and a Catholic Durable Power-of-Attorney form. 
For more details on Catholic teachings on Advance Directives, go to www.txcatholic-advance-directives.org.

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