Pope Francis and the “Right to Die”

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart) in Rome, the largest Catholic University in the world.

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart) in Rome, the largest Catholic University in the world. Harman Boparai / Religio.

ROME — Pope Francis has yet to speak publicly about end of life issues like euthanasia, or “the right to die,” since he become Pope in March. There is little doubt that he will adhere to traditional church teaching that believes that any curtailing of human life – even if designed to end pain – is tantamount to murder.

But there are those who are hopeful that the new pope, a man widely praised for his openness, will engage the opinions of others of good will on this issue. Professor Antonio G. Spagnolo, Director of the Institute for Bioethics at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, said that there are issues on which medical science and the church need dialogue, including on euthanasia.

“Medicine cannot think of itself as omnipotent, and the church also needs to ponder that doctors act in goodwill,” he said, adding that he was optimistic that Pope Francis would lead them towards this dialogue.

Prof. Antonio Spagnolo of the Agostino Gemelli School of Medicine is a proponent of church-science dialogue

Prof. Antonio Spagnolo of the Agostino Gemelli School of Medicine is a proponent of church-science dialogue. Harman Boparai / Religio.

“What should be allowed is letting die but not causing death,” Spagnolo said. He added that he agreed with the church that disproportionate or dangerous treatment could be withheld, but provoking someone’s death was akin to killing.

Euthanasia, defined as intervention to end a life in order to relieve intractable pain and suffering, has been illegal in Italy, although Italian law does uphold a patient’s right to refuse care. The institution most instrumental in framing the euthanasia debate in the country has been the Catholic Church. The church considers euthanasia the equivalent of murder or suicide.

“Suicide is never a way to solve a health issue,” said Deacon John Paul Mitchell, a seminary student at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Mitchell spoke as he walked towards St. Peter’s Square for the first Angelus prayer by Pope Francis.  For the church, he said, there is meaning to be found in suffering through terminal illnesses. “There is a certain spiritual value in your suffering, along with the suffering of Christ,” he said as he looked on with the sea of people gathered to get their first glimpse of the new pope.

Proponents of euthanasia maintain that people have a right to self determination, and assisting a patient to die might be a better choice than requiring that they continued to suffer. The Catholic Church on the other hand is opposed to any form of euthanasia, whether it is active or by omission. But it does consider it morally acceptable to use analgesics to treat pain, even if it involves – as a side effect and not desired – the shortening the patient’s life. Under sections of 2278 of the Catechism by Pope John Paul II, it only allows discontinuing medical procedures that are “burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome and constitute aggressive medical treatment.”

In view of the illegality, in 2006, Piergiorgio Welby – a terminally-ill Italian man with a severe form of muscular dystrophy – died after a protracted legal dispute during which he described his life as torture. A judge had ruled that he did not have the right to have his respirator removed. In July 2007 came the case of Giovanni Nuvoli, a 53-year-old former football referee with advanced muscular dystrophy, who died after going on hunger strike because he was not allowed his request to die without suffering.

The debate over the status of euthanasia got more heated in 2008, when a court in Milan awarded the father of Eluana Englaro, a 38-year-old woman who had been in a permanent and irreversible vegetative state since a car crash in 1992, the right to disconnect her feeding tubes.

St. Peter's Basilica as seen from across the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri

St. Peter’s Basilica as seen from across the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri. Harman Boparai / Religio.

During the court proceedings, the Vatican argued that removing the feeding tubes would amount to euthanasia, a position that was supported by many Catholic politicians. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to issue an emergency decree barring doctors halting nutrition to patients in a coma. However President Giorgio Napolitano refused to sign it, and three days later, before the Senate could enact a new law, Englaro died.

Following the Englaro case, the lower house of the Italian legislature voted 278-205 to pass a bill that prohibited euthanasia and required that patients not be denied food and hydration, which the church considers euthanasia by omission.

While Italy prohibited it, other countries in the European Union moved towards liberalizing euthanasia laws despite fierce opposition from religious circles, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, all of which permitted active euthanasia. When an Italian minister compared the Dutch “Termination of Life on Request Act” to Nazi Germany’s euthanasia policies, it triggered a diplomatic row, as well as political backlash within Italy, with parties like the Italian Radical Party asking for the resignation of the minister.

Mario Staderini, the General Secretary of the Italian Radical Party, said in an interview that the political influence of the Vatican was a big problem. “The church controls politics in order to forbid civil rights,” he said, adding that political parties listened to the church because of the vast Catholic voter base as well as the church’s financial influence. He noted as one example, the fact that a living will – in which a person can direct his or her end-of-life care – is forbidden in Italy.   “The church,” he explained, “wants to have power over people’s lives, when they begin and also when they end.”

In the medical fraternity, surveys in various countries have shown that up to 78 percent of nurses were in favor of passive euthanasia. “I think it’s having the right to choose what they want, and if there’s no quality of life, they should have the right to die,” said Ellie Mincheva, 53, a nurse from Bulgaria drawing on her experience of working with terminally ill patients. “It’s just a lot of agony, and why prolong their agony,” she added.

While the views of Pope Francis on euthanasia are yet to be explicitly stated, as Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina he had addressed the issue with a focus on the general elderly population. “In Argentina there is clandestine euthanasia. Today elderly people are discarded when, in reality, they are the seat of wisdom of the society. The right to life means allowing people to live and not killing, allowing them to grow, to eat, to be educated, to be healed, and to be permitted to die with dignity,” he had said.

Meanwhile even days after the new pope’s inauguration, crowds kept streaming in to visit the Vatican. One visitor, 68-year old Peter Huber from Germany, said that decisions for end of life care were very personal, but he did not know what was right or wrong. “All I can say is I just hope there is another life in heaven,” he said.

Tags: , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply