Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 6, 2000
Franciscan opposes euthanasia
While it's OK to allow a terminal patient to die, it's never right to kill someone
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Is there a difference between killing a terminally ill patient and allowing that person to die? Those who support assisted suicide and euthanasia say there is none.
But Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, a Franciscan physician from New York, says there is one and that's the intention.
If one's intention in disconnecting a respirator is to cause the patient's death, that's killing and it's morally wrong, he said.
If the aim is to discontinue treatment to avoid prolonging the dying process, "that's permissible," he said.
Allowing someone to die is simply withholding treatment and allowing the incurable disease to take its course.
The bottom line is that "all killing is morally wrong," Sulmasy said. "Some allowing to die is also wrong, but some is right." In emergency situations, however, it is better to err on the side of life and continue the treatment, he said.
Sulmasy, a professor and chair of the John J. Conley department of ethics at Saint Vincent's Hospital and Medical Centre in New York, was the guest speaker at the Mousseau Memorial Lecture at St. Thomas More Church Oct. 29.
Killing and Allowing to Die - a Distinction with a Difference was the title of his talk, which was sponsored by the St. Luke's Physicians' Guild, the Grey Nuns Medical Staff Association and the St. Joseph's College Ethics Centre. More than 250 people attended his talk.
In the ancient Mediterranean world, assisted suicide and euthanasia were common, noted Sulmasy. Terminal patients would often commit suicide. It was believed it was more honourable to kill oneself than allowing others to kill you.
Hippocrates took a different approach. Although he said physicians should never administer patients deadly drugs, "he never said don't treat patients who have no hope of recovery."
Christianity came right out and said killing is always wrong.
St. Augustine used martyrdom to illustrate the issue. His bottom line was that martyrs foresee their death but they never seek or intend it. Therefore those who deliberately provoke their deaths are not true martyrs, the saint said.
The ban on killing patients has been held during 20 centuries of health care, with some exceptions.
In the Netherlands, euthanasia has been practised for 20 years. Although not legal, it is widely accepted. There are some 4,000 cases of euthanasia and assisted suicide a year.
In the United States, Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisted many to commit suicide until his conviction. The practice is legal in Oregon and in Maine there is a referendum coming up on its legalization.
"Proponents say there is no difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia. But if somebody is on a ventilator and I make an active move to cut it off, I have committed an action," Sulmasy said. "Sometimes that's the right thing to do, sometimes that's the wrong thing to do."
What make the biggest difference is one's intention, the Franciscan said. "Is your aim making the patient dead or is your aim to stop the treatment to avoid needlessly prolonging the dying process?"
Allowing to die, he said, involves a lack of treatment or allowing a pre-existing disease to take its course.
Life should be respected because human beings have a dignity given by God, Sulmasy said. "We have a dignity whether we are retarded, young or old."
To kill, the Franciscan said, is to say that a human life no longer has value. To allow someone to die is simply an acknow-ledgement that the value of human life is not infinite.