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Mrs. Santiago Must Die: The Slope is Slippery

Dr. Clifton is a Catholic neurosurgeon who works frequently with people who have head injuries or are dying. His wife, Karen, has helped to supply many practical needs for Casa Juan Diego over the years, and currently provides sandwiches for the men on the streets.

Mrs. Santiago

Mrs. Amy Santiago was 80 years old and lived independently in her small home in a Houston suburb prior to the hospital admission for a stroke. She and her husband had built the home and reared their son in it. 
Their neighbors, now mostly widows, had lived there as long. She and
 her friends often played dominos. It had been two years since her
 husband had died. Her 50-year-old son now lived in California. He 
worked hard to support his three children and was able to provide modest support for his mother after her husband’s death. His mother knew her son was now facing a difficult time financially. His company had downsized, and he had been forced to accept a lower salary at a time when he had one child in college and two others soon to go.

The stroke occurred one evening with immediate loss of use of her entire
 left side followed by loss of consciousness. Her only warning was an
 unusual headache lasting several hours. She did not remember the first
 week in the hospital. When she became aware, she found a feeding tube
 in her nose, a catheter in her bladder, and little feeling and no 
movement of her left side. Although the left side of her face was
 paralyzed, she soon began to eat with assistance and could talk with
 little difficulty. She was unable to sit up or get out of bed without
 assistance. She rang her call button with her right hand but could not
 get help for at least 30 minutes. When she had soiled herself on two
 occasions, she felt particularly degraded at being stranded in bed until
 the nurses came. She became quite depressed as days passed without any return of her left side. Her son had been there when she became aware and had been consulting with the physician about the rehabilitation phase after a stroke and long term care issues, but later he had to return to work.

 Her physician, a pleasant, communicative young man came to see her
 daily. He told her that in two weeks she would go for an extended stay
 in the rehabilitation facility prior to discharge. When she would be
 discharged was never discussed and she hated to ask.

 Twice daily the therapists came and got her out of bed. Mrs. Santiago
 became aware from their conversations that their efforts were to allow
 her to sit independently and eat independently and that they had no
e xpectation that her arm, leg, and face would return or that she would
 walk in any fashion. She became increasingly depressed by the third
 week. The therapists had told her that a nursing home was probably her
 only long-term option. 

She began to consider whether her house would have to be sold and would the nursing home be in California or Texas? How would such care be paid for? The neighborhood had gone down, and the house would not bring much. When her son came back she asked him these questions. He said that he had found a nice nursing home near their house in California. He estimated sale of the house would provide at least two years of care there. She feared that after that there would be no more money unless one of the girls quit school. When her young physician began to explain the option of a painless death, she became further depressed at the thought. She felt powerless and so began to consider this option. She could not bring herself to ask how it was done. When she brought the issue up with her son, he firmly rejected the idea at first. As the physician began to answer more questions about prognosis, she and her son began to discuss the matter. Finally, overcome with sadness, she insisted that euthanasia was her choice. Another physician she had not seen before talked with her about euthanasia and seemed to want to be sure that her mind was made up. This nice young woman was smartly dressed in the same uniform as her doctor.

 The doctor had been right. There was really no pain associated with her
 death. Just insertion of an intravenous line and then she lapsed into
 unconsciousness just like when she had the stroke.

Euthanasia and God’s Will

The Church has spoken unequivocally about euthanasia as she believes God has spoken unequivocally. In the Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) Pope John Paul II has stated: “I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person.” The Holy Father continues, “In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God’s absolute sovereignty over life and death as proclaimed in the prayer of the ancient sage of Israel: “You have power over life and death; you lead men down to the gates of Hades and back again” (Wis 16:13). Jesus set the example by completely submitting himself to his Father’s will in both the time and terrifying manner of his own death” (John 13:1). When suffering is unavoidable, it may have a purpose known only to God and is to be endured with faith and hope. “I kept my faith even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted” (Ps. 116:10). Suicide or murder are not the ways out.

 Some people of faith might debate or question the Church’s
 interpretation of Scripture and its position on involuntary euthanasia. 
When a disabled or ill person is killed without their consent,
 involuntary euthanasia, the moral position of the state or physician 
doing the killing is more serious (Evangelium Vitae). Few who accept
 Christian or Jewish theology would seriously debate its perfidy.

Immorality and Public Policy

Efforts to legalize euthanasia in the United States are well under way.
 The debate will be about civil liberties. The fundamental limit on
 civil liberties by society at this time is to prohibit any act by an
 individual or group that directly harms another person or persons. 
Within this definition lies a lot of latitude. For example, what is a
 “person” and what is “harm?” When there is a question between a civil
 liberty and probability of harm, the civil liberty has usually won. An
 example is the unrestricted availability of sexually explicit material
 to minors on television and the internet. So the debate goes, is
 sexually explicit material really harmful. The jolting reality of
 legalized abortion in America up to the moment of birth makes the point
 that personhood is relative. The fetus prior to his/her first breath
 has not been defined as a person, or if so, as a potential person, or a
 marginalized person. The civil liberties of the fetus at all stages of
 development have been placed at the disposal of the woman bearing the
 child. Primacy is being placed on preserving the civil liberties of
 members of society who are not vulnerable. The point is that arguing
 that euthanasia is immoral and a violation of God’s will is unlikely to
 have a substantial effect on the debate about legalizing euthanasia in
 the United States. The proponents of legalized voluntary euthanasia
 will argue that it is a new civil liberty, a new right that affects no
 one but the patient making the decision of suicide.

 What is being dressed up as a new human right may become the right of
 society to further eliminate the vulnerable. The reasons for this are
 not immediately obvious, are not plainly discussed, but are particularly

Management of Technology

Physicians and patients share the ability to control pain and to control 
use of technology without deliberate actions taken to kill the patient.
 Much has been made of patients with cancer who live their last days in
 agony. However, pain of almost any degree is controlled at least when
 the pain is time-limited by an impending death. At times large doses of
 narcotics may alter the patient’s sensorium or even depress respiration
 to such a degree that an imminent death occurs. sooner. Newer
 techniques of narcotic infusion in the cavities of the brain or spinal
 column relieve pain effectively in many patients without drowsiness. 
More physician education is probably needed to assure that appropriate
 technology is applied. It is of interest to note that while pain
 management has dramatically and consistently improved in recent years,
 discussion about legalizing euthanasia has increased, indicating that
 social and political forces may motivate the debate as much as a concern
 for relief of pain.

 Withdrawal of disproportionate care is balancing the treatment to the
 disease and is not euthanasia. Death is not certain. Physicians now
 have the ability to permit a dignified, comfortable death without the
 chilling act of killing the patient. All hospitals and all religions 
permit, even encourage, “discontinuing medical procedures that are
 burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the
 expected outcome” (Second Vatican Council).

An example of this is the case of a fifty-year-old executive who acutely
 became comatose from a large hemorrhage in the brain. The man ran his
 own business and said many times that if he were ever rendered unable 
to live independently, he would prefer to be allowed to die. In some
 patients it is possible to discuss with the family at the time that the
 probability of death is certain with no chance of any quality survival.
 In this circumstance, surgery for a blood clot, using a ventilator to
 support breathing, or medications to support blood pressure are never
 instituted in the first place. It is frequently not evident in the
 first hours after a stroke or brain injury what the long-term prognosis 
is to be. It was not clear in this case at the time of the stroke that
 the prognosis was very bad. The patient underwent surgery, was placed
 on a ventilator and supported with intravenous fluids and medications
 for blood pressure. After three days it became evident from imaging
 studies and neurologic examination that this patient could not regain
 consciousness or sentient behavior. The tube in his windpipe was
 removed as was the ventilator, and he expired within hours with his
 family in attendance.

 The decision to withdraw care not proportionate to the expected outcome may not always be made immediately after onset of an illness. In cases of chronically vegetative patients not requiring life support, the
 judgment is often made that treating repeated pneumonia with antibiotics 
is disproportionate care. Patients may expire of the infections they
 are prone to. The ability to control pain and to balance the treatment
 to the disease is available to physicians and patients now without the
 chilling act of killing the patient.

Imperfect Judgment

One of the great risks of euthanasia is that what appears to be a
 rational decision may not be rational or independent. The first
 reaction to any loss, whether of a family member or a limb, is
 depression. Acceptance only comes later. A decision made in a 
depressed state may not be the same decision made after the loss has
 been accepted. Acceptance of an illness or loss occurs at different
 times in different people. An example is patients with spinal cord
 injury. Many times young doctors have said to their colleagues about
 quadriplegia (paralysis of arms and legs), “Do not treat me if I ever
 come in like that.” It is true that in the first weeks after spinal
 cord injury in young men, many have wished for death. Yet within one 
month they all begin to fight. In the end, almost no one wishes for
 death after the fact of quadriplegia is accepted. On the contrary,
 these young people accept on a daily basis what seems inconceivable. 
They work and take joy in aspects of life which those without disability
 consider given. Their injury creates individuals of uncommon
 determination and equanimity. Life is viewed from a different
 perspective, but it is no less valuable.

 The very circumstances in which euthanasia is considered are
 circumstances of depression when rational, informed decisions are
 unlikely to be made.

The Perversion of Medicine

The tradition of medicine is to support life and alleviate suffering of
 all persons regardless of their circumstances. The convicted murderer 
is to be accorded the same basic medical care as the saint. The
 Hippocratic oath and medical tradition forbid deliberate termination of
 life. Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council, in a reference to
 euthanasia and its destructive effects stated, “They (euthanasia and
 other acts opposed to life) do more harm to those who practice them than
 those who suffer from the injury. “

The ability to terminate life with consent (or without consent) will not
 just add a new tool to the physician’s armamentarium. The taking of
 active measures to terminate life will probably alter physician judgment
 about when and in whom to use medical treatments. Euthanasia will also
 inexorably lead the physicians who perform it to make value judgments
 about the worth of individuals. This departure from a long and clearly
 established medical tradition will insidiously transform the ethics of
 physicians who participate in it. Certainly those who do so regularly.

 This opinion is not just conjecture. In the Netherlands, euthanasia has
 been practiced since the 1980’s. If three criteria are fulfilled,
 physicians may not be prosecuted for homicide. First the patient must
 take the initiative in requesting euthanasia and request it repeatedly.
 Second, the patient must be experiencing suffering that only death can
 relieve. Third, the physician must consult with another physician who
 agrees that euthanasia is acceptable in the particular case. The
 Remmelink Commission report released in 1991 found that in 40% of
 euthanasia cases these criteria were not all fulfilled. In most cases
 euthanasia was discussed with the patient, but the patient was not fully
 competent to request euthanasia when the drugs were eventually
 administered (Van der Maas P.J. and others, “Euthanasia and other
 medical decisions concerning the end of life.” Lancet, 1991,

Euthanasia has also been offered to minors in the Netherlands. Less
 than 20% of euthanasia cases were ever reported to the state (Fergusson
 A. and others, “Euthanasia, Lancet, 1992, 338:1010-1011). The slide
 from voluntary to involuntary euthanasia by physicians in the
 Netherlands is well-documented. This occurred with no financial
 incentive to Dutch physicians to participate in euthanasia.

The Particularly Slippery Slope

The timing of legislation legalizing euthanasia in the United States
 could not be worse. Powerful new financial forces have seized medicine and changed it. The stimulus is that the cost of medicine in the U. S. has escalated out of proportion to all other aspects of the economy. 
Health maintenance organizations (HMO’s) are entities which have more or less been proven to stop escalation of health care costs and are,
 therefore, becoming the norm in financing of medicine.

 These companies employ doctors and contract with hospitals for medical
 services. Companies or individuals pay a set amount to the HMO, and for that amount all health services are provided by the HMO. An HMO’s
 profits are derived directly from the difference in money paid to the 
HMO by employers for care and the cost of care. The federal government is likely to contract with HMO’s for Medicare and Medicaid in order to set a limit on costs. Patients find HMO’s attractive in that they have no out of pocket expenses and premiums are lower than conventional insurance.

 For a patient, going outside of the HMO is not an option unless the
 patient is willing to bear all costs of care. Inherent in this concept
 is eliminating waste. Medical decision affecting cost of care are left
 to physician judgment. Physician judgment may be somewhat clouded,
 however, in that up to 30% of physician income is determined by how many health care dollars that doctor does not spend. HMO’s are not required to divulge to the public financial arrangements with physicians (Robert Pear, New York Times 7/8/96).

The grave danger is that voluntary euthanasia, if legalized, will
 insidiously alter medical ethics at a time when they are already under
 pressure. Euthanasia that is only somewhat voluntary or frankly
 involuntary could well become a useful tool in controlling health care
 costs without ever being documented as such. The elderly disabled who 
are particularly at risk would become marginalized persons as have the 
unborn. It is a matter of curious analogy that the Nazis introduced the
 concepts of “unworthy lives” to the German public and medical profession by mercy killing of deformed children and the mentally ill.

 The words of Alexander Pope are haunting when applied to euthanasia:
 “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
 As to be hated needs but to be seen;
 Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face
 We first endure, then pity, 
then embrace.”

Mrs. Santiago

Mrs. Santiago’s physician was a recent graduate of a residency program 
and in family practice. He had little experience in caring for patients
 with severe injuries and had not recognized the signs of depression in
 her. He had competed with a large group of physicians for his position
 in the HMO of which Mrs. Santiago was a member and was glad to have one of the few available positions in the community. He had recently
 finished an organized series of lectures on cost control. Thirty
 percent of his and the other physicians incomes were determined by the
 amount of health care dollars saved that year over the actual budgeted
 amount. The doctor’s lack of experience, perhaps, had led him not to
 fully discuss with Mrs. Santiago and her son that she could probably
 live independently in her son’s home with modifications to the home to
 accommodate a wheelchair or that she could be taught over a two to three month period to transfer herself from bed to wheelchair. Mrs. Santiago would never have considered euthanasia, but distraught over financial burdens, not fully informed about prognosis, and saddened by his mother’s depression, the idea had become easier to accept. The wide
 acceptance and performance of euthanasia made him used to the concept.

Certainly no one would be critical. He never knew that his mother’s
 decision only had the appearance of free choice.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 6, November 1996