The shocking arrogance of Catholic Healthcare

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Palliative care specialist advances incoherent reasons to oppose VAD.

Director of Palliative Care at Cabrini Health, Associate Professor Natasha Michael, yesterday published an opinion piece in The Age newspaper. In it, she rails against Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying (VAD) Act which comes into effect on 19th June. Instead she articulates an arrogant and prescriptive view of what Australians should and shouldn’t be allowed, consistent with Catholic dogma, as I uncover.

Michael, along with fellow devout Catholic Dr Stephen Parnis, ‘tirelessly’ opposed the introduction of Victoria’s VAD law. They continue to actively oppose it, and her opinion piece reveals her spurious ‘reasoning’.

The Catholic Healthcare brick wall

More than half of all palliative care services in Australia are delivered through Catholic institutions, of which Cabrini Health is one arm. These institutions have determined that VAD will not be available in any of their facilities or via any of their services, even if the individual patient and doctor are supportive.

This arbitrarily limits access to lawful choice by citizens.

Confected ‘institutional conscience’

I say ‘arbitrarily’ because ‘institutional conscience’ is a confection: it doesn’t really exist. Only real persons have conscience. The fabricated dictates of any institution — presented as ‘moral rules’ — extinguish the actual real conscience of those who exist within it: at least, those whose conscience differs.

The upshot is that a specific cohort of religious, celibate men in Rome dictate whether Australian citizens can or can’t obtain lawful healthcare services from half the service providers.

So let’s examine what the institutional ‘conscience’ has to say.

Disgraceful framing in headline

We can’t let voluntary assisted dying negate our commitment to the ill”, Michael’s article headline screams.

Firstly, VAD is not available to the “ill”. It’s available only to those with terminal illness and intolerable suffering, according to 68 criteria.

Secondly, Michael invokes a false dichotomy of “negating a commitment”. VAD does not “negate a commitment”. Indeed, to fail to hear and respect a persistent, fully informed and tested request for VAD that meets all the criteria is to negate palliative care’s commitment to honour the patient’s deeply held values, beliefs and decisions.

Medical-coloured glasses

The introduction of voluntary assisted dying legislation in Victoria on June 19 will remind us of the occasional failure of medicine,” Michael says.

That’s it. The patient’s death is a failure of medicine, as though a person’s death is a medical event rather than a deeply human and private one of personhood.

It also flags the common but immature medical assumption that “death = failure”. Death is inevitable, not a “failure”. The key question about death for people with terminal illness is “how”, and Michael presumes to prescribe the “how”: being receptacles for interventions that she and her colleagues provide.

Let’s be clear. Many people are helped enormously by palliative care. That’s a great credit to the discipline’s specialists.

However, as Palliative Care Australia acknowledges, even the best palliative care can’t relieve all excruciating, debilitating and humiliating refractory symptoms.

Michael’s answer to this sometimes “failure” of medical interventions? Deliver more interventions, whether the patient considers them consistent with his own values, beliefs and circumstances or not.

They’re very heavily medical-coloured glasses indeed.

Three faux ‘threats’

Michael then invokes three faux ‘threats’ supposedly caused by lawful VAD in Victoria.

Faux threat 1: “Validating suicide as an acceptable choice”.

Michael exposes her own bias here: that all self-hastening of deaths are the same — that there is no meaningful difference between a dying person who is fully informed and whose rational choice for a peaceful assisted death has been extensively tested, with the violent and impulsive action of a person suffering a temporary, resolvable personal crisis, be it mental illness, substance abuse, intimate relationship breakdown or other circumstance.

Michael is pretty much on her own here. Most Australian doctors make a clear distinction between these very different contexts.

Faux threat 2: “accepting substandard medical care by supporting the lack of rigour in defining [VAD] eligibility”.

Michael overlooks that there is a major lack of rigour in existing, lawful end-of-life choices.

There are no statutory requirements for a patient to refuse medical treatment, even if the treatment would be life-saving.

There are no statutory requirements for the voluntary refusal of food and fluids in order to die, either.

More critically, despite terminal sedation being a common end-of-life medical practice but ethically problematic (including that it may hasten death and may not alleviate intractable symptoms), not only is there no statutory requirement for its practice, but neither the Australian Medical Association nor Palliative Care Australia have official guidelines on its practice.

Thus, in railing against the staggering 68 standards of practice prescribed in Victoria’s VAD law — vastly more than any other in the world — as a “lack of rigour”, Michael makes no mention of three other major life-end choices that have no such standards, including her own discipline’s terminal sedation.

Doctor, heal thyself (and thine own systems).

Faux threat 3: “introducing into the healthcare curriculum the intentional ending of life as acceptable medical treatment”

Michael creates a misleading impression here. By referring to ‘curriculum’ you might think that all medical students would have to undergo training on how to end lives, or be ‘indoctrinated’ to accept VAD. That is not true.

To be able to prescribe lethal medication under Victoria’s legislation, the doctor must undergo additional training in relation to that procedure. Doctors will only receive the training if they self-nominate for it: it’s not compulsory.

If, by ‘curriculum’ Michael means only “VAD might be discussed” in medical school, then she would have to articulate why termination of pregnancy (to which the Catholic church objects) should not be discussed, either. Nor the transfusion of blood, since many Jehovah’s Witnesses object to the procedure.

Own failure in palliative care principles

Nowhere in her opinion piece does Michael acknowledge that the patient may deeply hold values and beliefs that validly favour VAD. Thus, Michael offends the first principle of palliative care which is to make the patient the centre of care and to honour as much as possible the patient’s values, beliefs, attitudes and wishes.

Indeed, in her conclusion, Michael states that palliative care “remains committed to the ongoing accompaniment of our patients. Not abandoning them” and which is “the only plausible method of compassion and care.”

This surely is the most egregious and arrogant self-interest of all: patients must subject themselves to being accompanied by palliative care staff and their ‘interventions’ whether they want more or not.

On the contrary, to fail to hear and respect a genuine, informed and persistent request for a peaceful hastened death from a dying patient for whom this accords most firmly with his deeply held values and beliefs, is to abandon the patient.

Conclusion

Michael is of course entitled to her personal stance, and I celebrate her right to hold her views: for herself.

However, her ‘requirement’ that all Victorians be denied access to an option that four out of five believe to be moral — and instead subject themselves to interventions administered by Michael and her colleagues — reveals an unattractive arrogance.

It’s a shame that Catholic bioethics doesn’t teach more about reflection, especially as to whether one’s own beliefs ought to dictate and limit the choices of others with equally firmly held, though different, values.

In the meantime, Victorians are pawns to the tyranny of the Vatican as to whether there is a local healthcare facility that will hear and examine their request for a peaceful, assisted death in the face of terminal illness.

In many places, there won’t be.


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