The House of Representatives passed a bill late Monday to support palliative and hospice care—but Catholic groups are concerned that a key omission could allow federal funding of practices they say amount to assisted dying.
On Monday, the House passed the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (HR 647) by voice vote; the bill funds efforts to increase palliative care faculties at medical schools, as well as palliative care and hospice training and education.
Palliative care involves pain management and physical, psychological and emotional care for those suffering from a serious illness, and can be provided alongside medical care. Hospice care is when palliative care is given to patients with a terminal diagnosis, who do not wish to unnecessarily prolong their life through extraordinary means of medical care but who wish to remain as comfortable as possible.
The bill requires that federally-funded palliative care be in accord with Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997, in that it cannot promote “assisted suicide, euthanasia, or mercy killing.”
However, language that is not included in the bill that has some Catholic groups, including the U.S. Bishops Conference, concerned.
The House bill omits language contained in the Senate version of the legislation, introduced by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) in July.
The Senate bill states: “As used in this Act (or an amendment made by this Act) 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.”
This clarification is significant, supporters say, because it offers an unprecedented definition of palliative and hospice care that specifically excludes any act that would hasten or bring about death. It refers to certain controversial practices which some in the medical community recognize as a legitimate part of palliative care, but which may cause or assist in causing the death of the patient.
Catholic organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Catholic Health Association (CHA) and the Catholic Medical Association (CMA), supported the Senate bill. Only CHA supports the House bill as well.
“We support the Senate version, and we made it clear to both the House and the Senate that we want the Senate version to prevail,” Greg Schleppenbach, associate director to the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNA.
The language in the Senate bill is key to providing a sound definition of palliative care, he said, as some in the medical community are advocating practices that are contrary to the Church’s teaching on palliative and end-of-life care.
CMA, an association of Catholic individuals in health care with independent chapters throughout the country, supported Baldwin’s bill because it saw a need to promote “good palliative care and hospice care” as a means to “accompany” a sick patient and offer them a “life-affirming response” instead of promoting “euthanasia and assisted suicide.”
Both CHA and the USCCB cited current “barriers” to the provision of palliative care in the U.S. to argue in favor of Baldwin’s legislation, in a July letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.
Such barriers include a lack of health care professionals trained in palliative care and a lack of patient education on palliative care options, the groups said in the letter.
In addition, the groups praised the Senate bill for requiring that federally-funded palliative care be in accord with Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997, in that it cannot promote “assisted suicide, euthanasia, or mercy killing.”
The House version contains this funding prohibition as well, but the Senate bill goes one step further. It contains an additional clarification: “As used in this Act (or an amendment made by this Act) 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.”