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March 2, 2001




"We are transitioning away from a [health-care] system based on the Hippocratic oath, based on the sanctity of human life," said lawyer Wesley J. Smith in his workshop.


Congress workshops: In search of healing

A 'duty to die'?

By Jennifer C. Vergara

In this issue, The Tidings continues its report on some of what was addressed at the Feb. 16-18 Religious Education Congress in Anaheim.

"PEOPLE WITH ILL HEALTH or poor cognitive capacity have less value" - such is the disturbing ethic governing many health care practices these days, lawyer Wesley J. Smith told participants at his Feb. 18 Congress workshop entitled "Creating the duty to die."

Smith's talk explored issues that push American society steadily from believing in the "right to die" toward the "duty to die."

"We all have the right to refuse medical treatment," said Smith. "But today, the problem isn't being hooked up to a machine against your will ....The problem is getting the machines when you want them."

Smith told the audience of cases when doctors and family members of a patient decided on withholding treatment, which would be fatal for the patient, without necessarily considering medical benefit or value of life.

One such story was Nancy Cruzan's case. Sometime in the 1980s, noted Smith, Cruzan was severely hurt in a car accident. Her father, Joe, went to court in St. Louis because he wanted to pull out her feeding tube. While the trial judge granted that request, the state and the U.S. Supreme Courts overturned it.

But, Smith noted, the case led to a decision defining tube-feeding as medical treatment, not humane care. Eventually, Cruzan's feeding tube was pulled and she died by dehydration.

Smith said bioethicists justified this, saying, "People who are unconscious have no interests because they can't feel or perceive, so [withholding food and water] is right for them." But this futile-care theory, added Smith, opened the floodgates and now conscious patients who aren't even terminally ill are being dehydrated to death, as long as relatives don't object. Such was the case with Robert Wendland.

Wendland, who was also in a car accident in the early 1990s, woke up after being in a coma for 16 months. Smith said Wendland recovered enough to be able to roll a wheelchair, write the letter "R" and answer "yes" and "no" questions. His wife, however, decided to pull the feeding tube and the Lodi Memorial Hospital Ethics Committee agreed. When his mother found out after the decision was made, a bitter legal fight ensued.

The fight continues as a conscious Wendland waits. But Smith said this simply proves that "we are transitioning away from a [health care] system based on the Hippocratic oath,

based on the sanctity of human life = that is, each and every one of us has equal, inherent moral worth - one in which people are discriminated against based on their state of health or state of disability."

This "quality of life" ethic advocated by some bioethicists, lawyers and medical academics, in effect, justifies other abuses such as health care rationing and involuntary euthanasia, explained Smith. Rose Zadillo, from Blessed Junipero Serra Church in Palmdale, said Smith's stories were shocking to her.

Last year, Zadillo entered her seriously ill, 94-year-old mother-in-law in a nursing home. She said because of Smith's workshop, "I'm watching the nursing home. I'm going to talk to the doctor that's handling her care what the doctor's moral values are, what the doctor's policies are when it comes to this."

Zadillo added she's worried, "but at least I'm educated now and I'll be able to make better decisions."

--Jennifer C. Vergara

Congress workshops: In search of healing
Part I - Understanding 'social sin'
Part II -- Gospel healing stories
Part III - A 'duty to die'?

Copyright 2001  The Tidings -- March 2, 2001