Contemporary bioethics seminar explores end-of-life issues
HICKORY — The mention of Terri Schiavo's name is likely to spark debate about living wills, feeding tubes and euthanasia. Church teaching about end-of-life care is often misunderstood, and issues surrounding advance directives (or "living wills") can be unclear.
Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D., director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, wants to help Catholics "think rationally about these judgments."
Father Pacholczyk, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., has degrees in philosophy, biochemistry, molecular cell biology and chemistry, along with a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale University. He worked as a molecular biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, and he studied dogmatic theology and bioethics in Rome.
Pictured: Father Tad Pacholczyk spoke recently at the Catholic Conference Center in Hickory about Terri Schaivo and the lessons to be learned from her life. (Jennifer Krawiec | Catholic News Herald)
Father Pacholczyk recently spoke at the Catholic Conference Center in Hickory about ethical decision-making and advance planning for end-of-life issues. While Schiavo was not the main focus of his presentation, her tragic case was a tangible example of why we should discuss with our loved ones the plans we make surrounding our deaths, he noted.
Schiavo fell into a permanent vegetative state at age 26, after collapsing from unknown causes. She suffered from a chronic state of low-level responsiveness, not a coma or brain death, and her condition was not terminal. Schiavo died when a court ordered her feeding tube removed following a lengthy legal battle between her husband, who initiated the lawsuit, and her family, which fought to continue her medical care.
"The phrase 'quality of life' includes a judgment. Let's avoid using that phrase." Father Pacholczyk emphasized. "The temptation to avoid is writing off persons with brain injuries in one fell swoop."
The moral lesson, he said, is that it did not matter what Schiavo's condition was – what mattered was that she should not have been allowed to die essentially of starvation.
When deciding whether to intervene in end-of-life situations, he said, the underlying cause or illness is what should result in death, not action or inaction.
When it comes to life-sustaining treatments, we are often unsure as to what is required. Father Pacholczyk clarified the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means by discussing the "benefit vs. burden" of treatments. There are questions to ask when making decisions about treatment: Is there reasonable hope of success? Are there side effects? What is the moral and physical state of the patient? Does treatment involve excessive expense? What burdens will be placed on others if treatment is provided?
"An advance directive is like writing a blank check," he also cautioned, because at the time they are written, they are hypothetical and necessarily general.
He recommended that people develop an advance directive in line with Catholic teaching, such as the NCBC's "A Catholic Guide to End-of-Life Decisions."
The NCBC also offers free consultations for people struggling with making faith-based medical treatment decisions for themselves or their families.
End-of-life concerns need to be focused on having a "good death," he said.
"We need to remember to have compassion, listen to the patient and allow them to participate because they are deserving of respect. We should always see the patient as a person."
"Dying well is a stepping stone into the next life – and what a great grace that is."
— Jennifer Krawiec, corrrespondent
National Catholic Bioethics Center: ncbcenter.org. In emergency situations, an NCBC ethicist is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 215-877-2660.
Terri Schaivo Foundation: terrisfight.org
FROM THE PASTORS
Read and listen to homilies posted regularly by pastors at parishes within the Diocese of Charlotte:
- Fr. Frank Cancro at Queen of the Apostles
- Fr. Patrick Earl at St. Peter in Charlotte
- Fr. John Eckert at St. John the Baptist in Tryon
- Fr. Timothy Reid at St. Ann in Charlotte
- Fr. Benjamin Roberts at Our Lady of Lourdes in Monroe
- Fr. Patrick Winslow at St. Thomas Aquinas in Charlotte
- Watch full Masses live and on demand, listen to homilies and reflections from Sacred Heart Church in Salisbury
- Listen to homilies from St. William Catholic Church in Murphy