The Catholic Medical Association, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association, are voicing support for a bill pending in Congress to fund training, research, and education on palliative care.
Palliative care involves medical care and pain management for the symptoms of those suffering from a serious illness, and refraining from taking actions that directly take the life of the patient, as opposed to the practices of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
“Our role as physicians is to care for patients at all stages of their lives, and to try to do so in an empathetic manner, showing them kindness and charity in their particular circumstances,” CMA President Dr. John Schirger said in a Sept. 23 statement.
“When there is nothing further we can do to change the course of a disease process, we can still remain with them, showing them kindness and solidarity. Our colleagues who practice palliative care have a privileged opportunity to care for patients during this most important time of their lives.”
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced S. 2080, the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act, in July.
According to the CMA, the bill would provide federal grants to train more health professionals with expertise in palliative care so they can integrate it into their own practices, and would also fund research to improve methods for palliative care, and support programs to inform patients and health professionals of the benefits of such care.
The CMA noted that “some of our friends and allies in the effort against euthanasia and assisted suicide” have cited cases of patients being given large doses of painkillers to cause death, and also some physicians, ethicists, and state legislators who are attempting to define assisted suicide as a form of palliative care.
Despite this, the CMA said they see the current bill as “not part of the problem but part of the solution.”
The organization noted that S.2080 incorporates the policy of the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act, which since 1997 has excluded assisted suicide and euthanasia from all federal health programs. It also adds an explicit provision that “palliative care and hospice shall not be furnished for the purpose of causing, or the purpose of assisting in causing, a patient’s death, for any reason.”
While the Catholic Church recognizes life as a good, patients and doctors are not required to do everything possible to avoid death if a life has reached its natural conclusion and medical intervention would not be beneficial.
The CMA emphasized their position that “the goal of palliative care is to promote effective relief of pain and suffering, not to eliminate the sufferer.”
Countries with legal euthanasia are the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg, and Canada. Assisted suicide is legal in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. In the US, assisted suicide is legal in California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia, and in Montana by a court ruling. A law allowing it in Maine will take effect Jan. 1, 2020.
The bishops of Canada have been particularly vocal in support of palliative care, amid governmental efforts to expand assisted suicide and euthanasia, practices which have been legal in that country since 2016.
The Canadian bishops have multiple times stated that it is imperative that assisted suicide and euthanasia not be included as part of palliative care programs.
The bishops recently signed an interreligious statement that defines palliative care as “a comprehensive approach to end-of-life challenges, palliative care combines pain management with efforts to attend to a patient’s psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual needs, as well as caregiver support...the practice of palliative care does not include interventions which intentionally cause the death of the patient.”