Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Medical error or intentional death in Quebec?

This article was published by First Things on August 22, 2017.

George Weigel
By George Weigel

Those who persist in denying that the Church is engaged in a culture war, the combatants in which are aptly called the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” might ponder this June blog post by my summer pastor in rural Québec, Father Tim Moyle:
Tonight I am preparing to celebrate a funeral for someone (let’s call him “H” to protect his privacy) who, while suffering from cancer, was admitted to hospital with an unrelated problem, a bladder infection. H’s family had him admitted to the hospital earlier in the week under the assumption that the doctors there would treat the infection and then he would be able to return home. To their shock and horror, they discovered that the attending physician had indeed made the decision NOT to treat the infection. When they demanded that he change his course of (in)action, he refused, stating that it would be better if H died of this infection now rather than let cancer take its course and kill him later. Despite their demands and pleadings, the doctor would not budge from his decision. In fact he deliberately hastened H’s end by ordering large amounts of morphine “to control pain” which resulted in his losing consciousness as his lungs filled up with fluid. In less than 24 hours, H was dead. 
Let me tell you a bit about H. He was 63 years old. He leaves behind a wife and two daughters who are both currently working in universities toward their undergraduate degrees. We are not talking here about someone who was advanced in years and rapidly failing due to the exigencies of old age. We are talking about a man who was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. We are talking about a man who still held onto hope that perhaps he might defy the odds long enough to see his daughters graduate. Evidently and tragically, in the eyes of the physician tasked with providing the care needed to beat back the infection, that hope was not worth pursuing. 
Again, let me make this point abundantly clear: It was the express desire of both the patient and his spouse that the doctor treat the infection. This wish was ignored.

Canada’s vulnerability to the culture of death is exacerbated by Canada’s single-payer, i.e. state-funded and state-run, health care system. And the brutal fact is that it's more “cost-effective” to euthanize patients than to treat secondary conditions that could turn lethal (like H’s infection) or to provide palliative end-of-life care. Last year, when I asked a leading Canadian Catholic opponent of euthanasia why a rich country like the “True North strong and free” couldn’t provide palliative end-of-life care for all those with terminal illnesses, relieving the fear of agonized and protracted dying that’s one incentive for euthanasia, he told me that only 30 percent of Canadians had access to such care. When I asked why the heck that was the case, he replied that, despite assurances from governments both conservative and liberal that they’d address this shameful situation, the financial calculus had always won out—from a utilitarian point of view, euthanizing H and others like him was the sounder public policy.

But in Canada, a mature democracy, that utilitarian calculus among government bean-counters wouldn’t survive for long if a similar, cold calculus were not at work in the souls of too many citizens. And that is one reason why the Church must engage the culture war, not only in Canada but in the United States and throughout the West: to warm chilled souls and rebuild a civil society committed to human dignity.

Then there is the civic reason. To reduce a human being to an object whose value is measured by “utility” is to destroy one of the building blocks of the democratic order—the moral truth that the American Declaration of Independence calls the “inalienable” right to “life.” That right is “inalienable”—which means built-in, which means not a gift of the state—because it reflects something even more fundamental: the dignity of the human person.

When we lose sight of that, we are lost as a human community, and democracy is lost. So the culture war must be fought. And a Church that takes social justice seriously must fight it.


srj said...

So can we assume that 'H' died of an excess of morphine, and that he would not have died of the bladder infection?

Jopie said...

This article sends chills down my spine because I am from the diocese of Pembroke in which this priest writing practices his priesthood and know him personally. Thank you George Weigel for having the courage to publish this story which hits all too close to home.

Voice of Gone Ballistic said...

I was told by the health authority that my husband should not be treated for an infection because he will get it again so he might as well die now than later. Relunctantly he was treated and lived two years longer.

Doctors should keep patients alive as long as possible because we have the medical technology to do so not decide to hasten their deaths because they are going to die anyway.

Voice of Gone Ballistic said...

When I first became aware of physician's hastening death it was in 2010. A family of three would not leave their mother alone in Vancouver General Hospital. I got friendly with the daughter who warned me. She said a year early her father died because a physician for the Fraser Health Authority let her father died. The lady physician decided that since the father had cancer and he was just admitted with an infection, the doctor decided he should die because he had cancer and would die soon anyway. The problem with that was that the family had mortgaged their home in Surrey for $200,000 and the father was operated on in the US and the cancer was gone on his return to British Columbia. However, that did not seem to make a difference to the physician. Hastening death is more common than euthanasia. Physicians do it all the time. They call it good faith. And they get away with it.

srj said...

I am very concerned about the use of morphine. Having looked into this situation in relation to the death of a relative, I understand that the normal-dose palliative use of morphine does not kill. I am also aware of the practice of double-dosing with morphine. In my country, Australia, nurses/doctors etc. have to sign, and have someone countersign, for its use. But I was told several years back that people in health care situations commonly sign for two doses (in sequence) but withhold the first and then give two doses together. Not sure how this relates to the situation with 'H', but it is a serious problem. I was advised that the practice is 'common' in Australian Health Care situations, and that medical/care staff 'do it all the time'. We don't (yet) have a situation where termination is legal on the grounds that a Patient may die in the next months or years.

corners 'n edges said...

The eclipse of God —of the One, Living, and True God of Whom Jesus Christ is the Son, fully Human and fully Divine (..all unpacked in the Gospels) —is the underlying "problem". The love of technology —medical, in this case —and its endless development, has become "god", morphing the person, human beings, a country's citizens into manipulable guinea pigs. There is no Heaven. There is no Hell. There is only this planet's material "paradise" with medicine men and women culling the "healthy" herd.