By Ed Wilkinson
Applying Catholic principles about death and dying issues to New York State laws was the topic for Kathleen Gallagher of the New York State Catholic Conference, when she visited Brooklyn Wednesday evening, Oct. 5.
She gave her 90-minute presentation to about 75 people who attended an evening lecture at Our Lady of Angels, Bay Ridge, presented by the Right to Life Committee of neighboring St. Anselm’s parish, as part of its observance of Respect Life Month.
“The basic moral norm we are dealing with is the sacredness of every human life,” Gallagher said. “Therefore, every human life is deserving of the protection of our law.”
However, she pointed out that New York State is antagonistic to the life issues, pointing to legal abortion and the continuing attempts to permit some form of euthanasia.
Referring specifically to euthanasia – some call it mercy killing – she said that “it is always unacceptable to cause the death of an innocent human person.”
Instead of looking for ways to end a sick person’s life, the Catholic Church teaches that palliative is always the option. Such care, she said, offers pain relief, management of symptoms, acceptance of a person’s condition and support for the family.
She singled out the work of Calvary Hospital, which has a Brooklyn campus at NYU Lutheran Hospital, that offers hospice to the dying.
At the same, Gallagher pointed out that there needs to be “a distinction between euthanasia and the decision to forego treatment because of overly burdensome conditions.”
While stating that food and water should never be withheld, not everything that can be done needs to be done to prolong life.
“Prudential judgments need to be made and we need to evaluate each individual’s situation to render such judgments,” she said.
She explained that in the New York State Bishops’ document, “Now and at the Hour of Our Death,” the prelates point out that “Catholics are not morally bound to prolong the dying process by using every medical treatment available.”
For instance, the bishops use the example of a cancer patient who may refuse aggressive and expensive treatment if the survival rate is deemed too low and the pain too great a burden.
In addition to the bishops’ document, information about these issues also can be found online at www.catholicendoflife.org. The site contains an eight-minute video about the sacredness of life.
Meaning in Suffering
Gallagher also said that suffering can have a great meaning to human life.
“It’s an opportunity for grace-filled moments that unite us to the suffering of Jesus,” she said. “We believe there is a better life to come and that our destiny is everlasting life.”
She warned that New York State has been targeted as the next place to push physician-assisted suicide legislation. Currently, it is legal only in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and California.
In New York, assisting a person to commit suicide is considered manslaughter in the second degree.
One tool used by proponents is “verbal engineering.” Instead of calling it suicide, they try to make it more acceptable by calling it “death with dignity,” “patient self-determination,” “end of life options,” or “medical aid in dying.”
“We understand that life is a sacred trust over which we have been given stewardship, but not ownership,” write the State’s bishops.
Gallagher, who lobbies state legislators on behalf of life issues for the bishops, said she points out to them the inconsistency of support-assisted suicide with the large amount of money that is currently spent on educational materials to prevent suicide.
She also says it would “corrupt the practice of medicine” and take advantage of vulnerable people such as the poor, disabled and development challenged. “Doctors are trained to be healers, not killers,” she added.
In the second half of her presentation, Gallagher distinguished between a health care proxy and a living will. Basically a health care proxy allows a person to designate someone other than themselves to make health care decisions for them when they are unable to do so. A living will is a document that outlines a person’s wishes about what should be done in case he or she becomes incapacitated.
Gallagher said that it is preferable to have a health care proxy rather than a living will because it vests power in a living person who can makes choices rather than an inanimate piece of paper.
She commented that only about 20 percent of people in New York City have a health care proxy.
She added that the New York Legislature passed the Family Health Care Decision-Making Act in 2010 that allows the State to appoint a decision-maker for you if you have not done so and your mindset is not known.
She also said that Do Not Resuscitate orders must always weigh the benefits of performing the procedure against the burdens of doing so.
Gallagher urged listeners to be active in the political process of legislating about end-of-life issues. She said one good resource is www.nyscatholic.org that provides up-to-date action alerts, and www.noassistedsuicideny.org.
Fred Trabulsi, chairman of St. Anselm’s Right-to-Life, said that the session was organized because “we are always trying to support the right to life that our dear St. John Paul II impressed upon us.”