We have been spreading the word since the US Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) adopted new rules in November, obligating feeding tubes for permanently unconscious patients in Catholic healthcare facilities. David Dayen at firedoglake and Ann Neumann at otherspoon have reported the story. Now traditional media sources are picking up the story.
On December 20th, Charles Stanley of Atlanta’s Sunday Paper reported on the new directive, its potential conflict with patients’ stated wishes, and the potential legal conflicts.
In yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, Bob Egelko reports on the new mandate’s impact on Bay Area Catholic care facilities and the families who could face unexpected challenges in making decisions about care for a loved one.
The directive plunges the bishops into another health care controversy, on the heels of their lobbying for tight restrictions on abortion coverage in health legislation pending in Congress.
Catholic hospital officials say the November decree isn’t rigid and leaves room for accommodating patients’ wishes. But the bishops’ language appears to conflict with a hospital’s legal duty to follow a patient’s instructions to withdraw life support, as expressed in an advance written directive or by a close relative or friend who knows the patient’s intentions.
Courts have ordered hospitals to disconnect feeding tubes when an unconscious patient’s wishes were clearly established. The best-known case involved Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who died in 2005 after 15 years in a coma and unsuccessful attempts by her parents and Republicans in Congress to keep her alive.
The bishops’ order “fails to respect settled law that empowers patients with the right to refuse or direct the withdrawal of life-prolonging care,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, which advocates for the right of terminally ill patients to make life-or-death decisions.
“It will apply irrespective of your religious faith, your stated wishes in an advance directive, or the instructions of your family.”
That’s not how the bishops’ decree will be carried out, Catholic hospital organizations insist.
The decree itself does not require life-sustaining care that would be “excessively burdensome for the patient” or would cause “significant physical discomfort.” If those exemptions don’t apply, a hospital will send a patient elsewhere rather than violate his or her expressed wishes, the organizations said.
“If it was unresolvable … we would transfer them or find some other means to accommodate them,” said Lori Dangberg, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, which represents California’s 55 Catholic hospitals.
There you go. “the November decree isn’t rigid and leaves room for accommodating patients’ wishes.” Because you can do what the Bishops tell you to do, or go somewhere else.
You can read the full San Francisco Chronicle article here.