End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Posts TaggedEthical and Religious Directives

Bishops Step Over the Line

Over and over we see the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops confuse the right to exercise their religion with a right to impose their religion on Americans who don’t share it. This is not a subtle difference.

And, as Bill Moyers points out in the context of their intransigence on access to birth control, the bishops aren’t content with an exception from the rule that, like other employers, they provide birth control coverage to workers in their hospitals and universities. They also want to be able to keep their employees from obtaining birth control pills from a third-party insurer, at no cost to themselves.

This stance grossly abuses the rights and privileges of American business owners. Let’s face it: Hospitals are money-making operations, dominant in the economy and relying in great measure on government Medicare contracts and employer-based health plans. To allow one very large employer to dictate private healthcare decisions of its employees would distort the American ideal of freedom of religion into a very un-American practice of religious tyranny. The bishops want to control everyone’s moral decisions, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

In the context of end-of-life choice, the bishops enforce Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare. This document instructs doctors to ignore advance directives that conflict with Catholic moral teaching (ERD #24), requires patients in permanent vegetative states to overcome a presumption in favor of indefinite tube feeding (ERD #58), disallows as “euthanasia” a patient’s refusal of treatment such as kidney dialysis if intended to advance the time of death (ERD’s #59 and 60), and urges employees to offer religious teaching on the redemptive power of suffering when standard comfort care fails (ERD #61).

With regard to Oregon and Washington’s Death with Dignity Acts, the bishops use the machinery of Catholic healthcare to withhold information and support for aid in dying, a legal end-of-life choice. Catholic hospitals, hospices and healthcare systems in those states often impose a draconian gag rule on their employees to deprive patients in their care of comprehensive knowledge of end-of-life choices. As noted by Crosscut and The Seattle Timesthe Sisters of Providence healthcare system imposed policy that employees can’t discuss the issue with patients, even if asked. In response, Steven Saxe, director of the state’s Office of Health Professions and Facilities, reassured healthcare workers that all healthcare providers, including those at Providence, have a “protected right to offer basic information” about the law to patients.

An oppressive gag rule not only violates a cardinal rule of informed consent in healthcare, it also tramples the free speech rights and professional ethics of hospital employees and physician contractors.

As with contraception, a free society must find the middle ground. Catholic Bishops must be free to exercise their religion, yet we cannot allow them to deny that same freedom to the rest of us.

Good News From Kentucky!

2011 closed with good news out of Kentucky. On Friday Governor Steve Beshear refused to approve a Louisville hospital merger that threatened patient choice. Compassion & Choices, MergerWatch, the National Women’s Law Center and other national advocacy organizations joined local activists to raise constitutional and public policy questions regarding potential threats to end-of-life and reproductive care. In announcing his decision, Gov. Beshear noted “significant legal and policy concerns.”

Religious doctrine limits patient choice in over 600 of our nation’s hospitals, nursing homes and HMOs. When a Catholic healthcare institution merges with a non-sectarian one, the Ethical and Religious Directives for Healthcare (ERDs) invariably control care provided by the merged entity. Compassion & Choices is committed to joining patient rights advocates to oppose the imposition of religious restrictions wherever the threat arises.

This proposal ceded control of Louisville’s only public hospital to a Catholic healthcare company (St. Joseph Health System), and placed healthcare decisions in the hands of the local bishop and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. We applaud Governor Beshear for exercising good stewardship and ensuring that University Hospital (UNL) serves the public interest and needs for future generations of Kentucky citizens. “If this merger were allowed to happen,” Beshear said, “UNL and the public would have only indirect and minority influence over the new statewide network’s affairs and its use of public assets.”

Despite assurances from architects of the merger, loss of public influence in healthcare could have disastrous consequences for the people who depend on publicly funded healthcare. The people could never again rely on their public institution to place the highest priority on community needs. The ERDs that govern Catholic healthcare enforce Catholic doctrine. Staff and administrators must balance that doctrine, when possible, with community needs. Some options remain forbidden, no matter how great or pressing the need may be. This balance can leave the community with uncertain and unpredictable service.

A doctor at St. Joseph Hospital – a defender of St. Joseph’s Catholic identity – wrote of the confusing and contradictory statements made by hospital officials:

An Oct. 24 (Louisville) Courier-Journal article noted that on June 14, U of L Dean Halperin, “made a promise that we’ll respect the ERDs of the Catholic Church,” and on June 30, University Hospital CEO James Taylor stated, “we’ve also made the commitment that by joining the network with (SJHS) … we will adhere to the ERDs.”

Now that a merger might be imminent, a different stance has surfaced. The merger partners state in an Oct. 19 Metro Board of Health (BOH) release that University Hospital “will not become a Catholic hospital and will not be required to follow the ERDs.”

The Courier-Journal calls this “legal mumbo-jumbo.” Nonetheless, University Hospital spokesman David McArthur would not concede that it was a position change, but “an evolution of our explanation.”

Without governing authority, UNL and the citizens it serves could be forever tossed like a kite upon the changing winds of “evolving explanations” and changes in Church policy. In recent decades, the Vatican has become more conservative and U.S. bishops have required stricter obedience from Catholic healthcare institutions. No one can predict how Catholic doctrine or enforcement may change in the future, and once a public institution is lost, its accountability to the public welfare is lost forever.

So we welcome the new year with a celebration of effective community advocacy and a toast to elected officials who act in the public interest. Kentucky Reps. Mary Lou Marzian and Tom Burch helped inform the governor of advocates’ concerns and urged him to stand up for all Kentucky residents and their right to comprehensive healthcare.

We remain watchful. Announcing his decision, the governor said “… I have determined that this proposed transaction is not in the best interest of the commonwealth …” The emphasis was his. Compassion & Choices will resist any proposal – in Kentucky or elsewhere – that fails to safeguard patient rights to a full range of end-of-life healthcare choices

Bishop cuts ties to hospital over birth control

By JEFF BARNARD Associated Press Writer
Feb 16, 2010
GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — The Catholic Church is ending its long-standing relationship with St. Charles Medical Center in Bend over a surgical birth-control technique.

Diocese of Baker Bishop Robert Vasa said Tuesday the church can no longer sponsor the hospital because it continues to offer tubal ligation, which leaves women unable to get pregnant and is specifically prohibited by church teachings. “Pregnancy itself is not a disease, even though in our culture we treat pregnancy as a disease,” Vasa said. “So this prevents the function of a properly functioning organ under the guise of health care.

“It would be misleading for me to allow St. Charles Bend to be acknowledged as Catholic in name while I am certain that some important tenets of the Ethical and Religious Directives are no longer being observed.” Catholic Mass will no longer be celebrated in the hospital chapel, and church property not needed by the hospital will be returned, Vasa said.

The name of the hospital remains St. Charles, and the decision does not apply to affiliated facilities in Redmond and Prineville, which never were tied to the church, Vasa added. The hospital does about 235 tubal ligations a year, and Vasa and the hospital had been in negotiations over the issue for a few years. They finally decided that neither could bend from their positions.

“We just felt we have been offering these procedures for decades and we have an obligation to the patients in our community to offer the procedures they need,” said James Diegel, president and CEO of Cascade Healthcare Community President, the hospital’s parent company. “This should have no impact on our operations or finances or anything. It’s just a severing of an historical relationship that has been in place for 90-plus years.

“The hospital was founded in 1918 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tipton, Ind., and the order’s last administrator retired in 1988, serving on the board until 2000. The hospital was taken over by a local nonprofit organization in the 1970s. The hospital would continue to look to church directives for guidance, Diegel added.

“This doesn’t change who we have been, who we are and who we will continue to be going forward,” Diegel said.

READ THE PRESS RELEASE HERE >>

Pope vs. Doctors: How New Vatican Orthodoxy Undermines Medical Ethics and Imperils Your Health

 Jacob M. Appel, Bioethicist and medical historian

The Huffington Post

Posted: February 10, 2010 05:31 PM

Catholic hospitals, which boast a long and admirable history of caring for the seriously ill and indigent in the United States, have for many years finessed the challenges of serving two disparate and often incompatible masters. On the one hand, the nation’s 573 Church-run hospitals and their physicians are not permitted by Vatican policy to offer services or advice to patients when doing so violates Catholic teaching. In theory, prohibited activities range from providing abortions and assisting suicides to urging patients with HIV to wear condoms when engaged in unprotected sex or telling bipolar women on lithium to use contraceptives to prevent birth defects. On the other hand, these hospitals–which serve about one third of all patients in the nation–are also quasi-public institutions, and their physicians and nurses are bound by the same ethical obligations that govern all other members of their professions. They must obtained informed consent, honor patient autonomy, and offer medical care in line with the clinical standards of their colleagues at secular institutions. While a latent tension often exists between these competing allegiances, two recent developments relating to Church policy have set medical ethics and Catholic doctrine on an unfortunate collision course.

The first of these disturbing Church salvos against mainstream medical ethics is to be found in the newly promulgated Directive 58 of the United States bishops’ body governing Catholic health care services. This edict states that, barring certain specific circumstances, such as imminent death, Church doctrine prevents competent patients from refusing artificial nutrition and hydration. William Grogan, a religious advisor to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, explained to the media that death would have to be expected within two weeks for a patient to turn down a feeding tube. In other words, according to current Catholic teaching, a cancer patient in a coma with a life expectancy of four weeks must now be force-fed–no matter what his prior instructions stated and without regard to his family’s wishes. All comatose and vegetative patients will be required to accept nutrition and hydration indefinitely, even if they leave behind air-tight living wills objecting to such “heroic” and invasive measures. This extreme policy apparently applies to all patients receiving care in Catholic-run hospitals, whether or not they are Catholic. Since United States courts have consistently accepted that mentally-competent patients have a right to refuse care if their wishes are clear and documented, these rules may well be illegal. However, even if Directive 58 is not a violation of the law, it is a gross breach of accepted standards of medical ethics. No doctor or nurse in the United States may provide such unwanted nutrition and hydration without defying a well-established code of professional conduct. It is likely that any provider who acted in this paternalistic and unequivocally immoral manner would lose his or her license. In the very least, the provider would become a pariah among his colleagues.

A second Church-instigated challenge to medical ethics has arisen as a result of a grass roots protest by anti-abortion organizations in Pennsylvania against the well-regarded St. Mary’s Medical Center of Langhorne. In this case, Dr. Stephen Smith of St. Mary’s performed an ultrasound on an expecting mother and confirmed that the fetus had polycystic kidney disease, a fatal condition in infants. Smith recommended an abortion. When the pregnant women sought a second opinion, a midwife at Mother Bachman Maternity Center in nearby Bensalem, operated by the St. Mary’s, also recommended termination. The mother refused, which was certainly her prerogative, and the infant died two hours after birth. When local abortion opponents publicized Smith’s advice, a private citizen named Joseph Trevington demanded a formal review of St. Mary’s by the local archdiocese. The results of this ethics investigation are not yet publicly known, and may never be revealed, although a diocese spokesman stated that changes in the hospital policies are to be expected.

The very decision to conduct such a moral audit displays a chilling new direction in Church practice. As a matter of doctrine, Catholic hospitals require employees to “respect and uphold the religious mission” of their institutions as “a condition for medical privileges and employment.” So, in theory, any physician endorsing abortion (or vasectomies, birth control, withdrawal of life support, etc.) while on the hospital premises should be relieved of his duties. As a matter of Catholic doctrine, Trevington and his anti-abortion brethren appear to have the better half of the theological argument, at least when it comes to consistency and the letter of the law. At the same time, allowing Church dogma to dictate the medical practices of physicians clearly violates the most basic tenets of healthcare ethics. Dr. Smith had a duty to offer advice to his patient based upon his best independent professional judgment–which he apparently did. The Hobson’s choice that he faced–either to follow the Catholic “law” enshrined as policy or to adhere to medical obligation–was unreasonable and unacceptable.

Both of these events expose the dark and unspoken (although widely understood) secret that enables Catholic hospitals to practice first-class medicine: Official Church policy on matters such as contraception and end-of-life care, like much Catholic doctrine more generally, is largely honored only in the breach. I have known many excellent physicians over the years, both religious and secular, who work at Church-run hospitals. All of them advise women taking medications that cause birth defects to use contraception and tell HIV-infected patients to use condoms. Many offer direct counseling on abortion, certainly when fetal prognosis is grim. I cannot imagine any of these gifted doctors would force-feed an unwilling cancer patient in violation of an advance directive or a health care proxy’s wishes. Much like the absurd loyalty oath that New York’s college professors–myself included–take to uphold the state’s constitution, any pledge to support Catholic doctrine on medical matters is broadly viewed as a formality to be agreed to and then summarily ignored. Historically, the Church has looked the other way. Now, by challenging this longstanding system of benign neglect, bishops and grass roots zealots may believe they will achieve ideological purity. What they are actually doing is jeopardizing both the welfare of Catholic hospitals and the public health.

Some concrete thinkers may argue that since Catholic hospitals are “private” institutions, the Vatican can impose any rules that it wants. The claim belies the inherently public nature of the American hospital system. Catholic hospitals–like virtually all other hospitals in the Unites States–are only able to function as a result of a swath of government handouts and subsidies. Medicare and Medicaid pay the bills of almost half their patients. Federal funding supports the salaries of their medical residents. NIH Grants sponsor their research and clinical care. Many of the hospital buildings themselves were erected will federal construction dollars providing by the Hill-Burton Act of 1946. Private businesses may have a claim to considerable leeway in formulating their own rules and policies–although even “mom & pop” stores are reasonably prevented from excluding African-American customers and are often required to accommodate disabled shoppers. In theological matters, the Pope is certainly free to issue any decree he likes and those who wish to follow his dictates are entitled to do so. In contrast, Catholic hospitals function as public entities that serve people of all faiths and traditions. A patient in a medical emergency is taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital, not the nearest hospital that shares his social values. A system that operated otherwise would lead to logistical chaos and increased mortality. Once one accepts the premise that Catholic hospitals are public institutions, they have a moral obligation to comply with generally accepted standards of patient care and professional ethics. Today’s hospitals are far more Caesar’s than they are God’s.

One of the greatest triumphs of modern health care in the United States is the rise of nonsectarian service. In an earlier era in New York City, for example, Jews sought care at Mount Sinai while Protestants preferred Presbyterian Hospital and Catholics chose St. Vincent’s. Now, most patients–and all wise ones–choose their health care providers for clinical skills and personal attributes, not religious labels. As a result, the majority of patients at Catholic hospitals are not Catholic. To impose orthodox Catholic doctrine on these non-Catholic individuals at the most vulnerable moments of their lives would be the most significant Church intervention in the lives of non-adherents since the Inquisition. Doing so would also threaten the ability of physicians to practice at Catholic hospitals without violating their professional codes of ethics. In light of these developments, any patient currently receiving care in a Catholic-run hospital should immediately clarify with her doctor whether this physician will follow the patient’s own end-of-life wishes regarding so-called heroic measures if they come into conflict with Directive 58.

The Catholic Church has every right to announce and publicize its views on certain medical interventions and to declare that Catholics who engage in certain conduct are violating the rules of the Church. It’s the Pope’s club. He can make the by-laws. He does not have any business imposing such rules on third parties who do not wish to follow them. It will be a sorry day if American patients seeking the best medical care are forced to avoid Catholic hospitals for fear of having their living wills ignored or their doctors’ counsel dictated from Rome. The Church would be wise to focus its energies on theology and to leave the practice of medicine to the professionals.

Read this post at its original site at The Huffington Post.

Bishops vs. Patients Rights

I have written how recent changes to Ethical and Religious Directive (ERD) Number 58 compel Catholic hospitals and nursing homes to either disregard your end-of-life choices or violate the letter of the Directive.

The powerful Catholic Health Association says Compassion & Choices and I are exaggerating; the change is insignificant.

To bolster its claim of “no change” CHA points to another Directive, Number 59, that the free and informed judgment of patients should always be respected. What CHA fails to note is the condition at the end of that sentence, “unless contrary to Catholic moral teaching.”

But, one might ask, what exactly does that mean? How broad is that caveat? Who decides – doctor, bioethicist, Bishop? What sort of request, expressed in a living will, may not be honored in a Catholic hospital or nursing home, even before the recent change in ERD 58?

Picture this situation:

My mom received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis when she was just 59, and we both had a pretty good idea what lay ahead. Not far from my home northwest of Chicago is a fine long-term care facility with a wing dedicated to patients with Alzheimer’s.

My mom has been there ten years. She has been well cared for, getting the day-to-day support I couldn’t give on my own. Even as I have watched and grieved her drifting away, I am grateful for the time we have had together over those ten years.

Then she lost her appetite and her ability to feed herself. It’s hard for her even to swallow. Two days ago her care coordinator asked me about a feeding tube. I knew what Mom would choose. My family was supportive. I told the care coordinator Mom wouldn’t want a feeding tube in this condition and I took another little step down that slow path of grief.

But the care coordinator wants me to meet with their chaplain before making a decision. She says my mom is not actively dying and there’s no indication that she wouldn’t tolerate a feeding tube. Will I have to find another facility and arrange a transfer to honor what I know would be my mother’s wishes?

The recent change to the ERD sets out some narrow exceptions when artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) is not obligatory: if a patient is actively dying; if the tube causes serious side effects like infection; if the patient’s body cannot assimilate the food and water.

But, “My loved one doesn’t want to eat and can’t swallow. I don’t want to force them to stay alive.”— will that justify an exception?
Here’s another scenario:

The phone rings. It’s the assisted living facility’s care supervisor; my father collapsed just after dinner. “The EMTs are taking him to Mercy Hospital.” An hour later I am driving down Baltimore Pike into southwest Philadelphia.

I find my father in the ICU. Hooked up to all the tubes and equipment he looks so much older than a week ago. Over the next day and a half of tests and waiting – learning it’s a stroke – he doesn’t wake or stir. I’m sitting with him mid-morning when the neurologist arrives. He goes over results and treatments they’ve tried. “It’s unlikely that your father will regain consciousness, and if he did, very unlikely that he would return to normal mental function. We need to think about next steps.”

My father designated me his health care proxy for a moment like this. His advance directive is clear, and he’s been blunt in conversation. “Look, I’m eighty-three years old, and I’ve had all the breaks. If something happens, I don’t want to sit in a chair and drool for years.”

I make an appointment to see the social worker in her office, where we’re joined by a priest. I tell them we’re ready to remove life support. She turns to the priest. He says, “Mercy Hospital is committed to honoring advance directives for health care decisions as long as they do not contradict Catholic principles,” The priest has a copy of my father’s advance directive and reads from it. “If I am ever consistently and permanently unable to communicate, swallow food and water safely, care for myself and recognize my family and other people, and it is very unlikely that my condition will substantially improve, I would want to die rather than have life-sustaining treatments.”

The priest looks up. “Your father’s living will suggests that in his unconscious state his life is no longer worth living. Under these conditions, removing life support would be an act of euthanasia by omission.”

Catholic bioethical thought has evolved over centuries. The ERDs that govern care in Catholic hospitals and nursing homes are extremely nuanced. Your directions about life support may or may not be honored in a Catholic institution. Your concern about the burdens of medical interventions might justify forgoing life-sustaining medical treatment. But a wish to be allowed to die under certain circumstances might not.

Have you talked with your family about end-of-life options? Good.

Is an advance directive in place? Excellent!

Will that directive be honored in a Catholic health care facility? We cannot know for sure.