Texas Catholic Bishops Give Differing Views on Involuntary Denial of Treatment
In May 1990, a majority of the Roman Catholic bishops of Texas issued an “Interim Pastoral Statement on Artificial Nutrition and Hydration” which concluded that “morally appropriate foregoing or withdrawing of artificial nutrition and hydration from a permanently unconscious person ... is accepting the fact that the person has come to the end of his or her pilgrimage and should not be impeded from taking the final step.”
However, the Bishop of Corpus Christi, Rene Gracida, issued a dissent, calling the statement “seriously flawed.” Among many other objections, he warned that “the document gives a higher priority to efforts to relieve the burden caused by a serious illness rather than efforts to protect the sick person’s right to life” and “[t]he statement that the patient should not be impeded from ‘taking the final step’ has an ominous sound to it; it might give the impression that hastening death can be directly intended.”
In March 2004, Bishop Gracida’s position was supported by the highest authority in the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, when he stated that “the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, ... should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.”
Recently, Bishop Gracida, now retired, again had occasion to issue a statement giving another perspective than that of the majority of the Texas bishops. This time the context was a legislative debate over the efforts of a broad coalition, including the Texas Right to Life Committee (NRLC’s affiliate), disability rights groups, the Texas American Civil Liberties Union, and others, to change a Texas law that allows ethics committees at health care facilities to deny lifesaving medical treatment against the will of patients and families, so long as they are first given ten days to try to find another facility willing to accept transfer of the patient and provide the treatment needed to preserve life.
The groups were promoting a bill that would have eliminated the time limit, thus requiring provision of the requested treatment, to the extent necessary in reasonable medical judgment to prevent death, until a willing provider could be found. Early in the session, the bill appeared to have very good prospects. A majority of House members had co-sponsored it, and two-thirds of senators, including a majority of those on the relevant committee, had declared their support for it.
Then the Texas Catholic Conference became active. First, it instead endorsed a different bill. While increasing the number of days treatment would be required pending transfer from 10 to 21, the conference-endorsed bill lowered the level of treatment that would be required during that period to only the “same level” of treatment the facility originally agreed to provide—not, as under existing law, whatever requested treatment might be necessary to sustain the patient’s life.
Then, on April 24, 2007, Austin Diocese Bishop Gregory Aymond testified before the House Public Health Committee on behalf of “the Roman Catholic bishops of Texas.” Saying that “some people have misrepresented the Catholic position,” he affirmed, “as a Catholic Church, we do not believe that a terminally ill person should be kept alive by machines or technology. That is not truly human life and perhaps even stands in the way of God calling that person home to his kingdom.”
Referring to the crux of the debate—whether patients and their families, or hospital ethics committees, ought to have the final say over whether patients receive lifesaving treatment—Bishop Aymond said, “Sometimes families, through no fault of their own, are really not able to make those decisions because of their involvement, because of the emotions.”
By May 6 an article in the Houston Chronicle reported, “A bill that would have forced doctors to provide treatment until a transfer can be found had picked up a lot of support earlier in the session but has lost momentum.”
In reaction to Bishop Aymond’s testimony, on May 18, 2007, Bishop Gracida wrote an open letter to the Texas
Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House of Representatives. Noting that as “a retired Bishop I was not able to participate in the deliberations of the Texas Catholic Conference,” Gracida sought to put on the record “further reflections” on the matter.
Noting that “caring for the sick, the wounded and the helpless out of a love for God has been a fundamental concern of the Catholic Church since its beginning,” he summarized Catholic teaching as follows:
generous altruism of the Good Samaritan must remain the ideal of
(See the table on page ten for a point-by-point comparison of Aymond’s testimony with Gracida’s letter.)
In the end, the 2007 legislative session adjourned with all efforts to change the Texas law authorizing involuntary denial of treatment having failed.
For further information, go to our web page at www.nrlc.org/Texas/InvolDentreat.html