Euthanasia is not such a bad word anymore. In fact, the medical practice of prematurely declaring a person as clinically dead is widespread in the West; especially when the patient is an organ-donor. Although the practice of organ donation is morally permissible and is inspired by honorable intentions, nevertheless, what should be borne in mind is that not a few hospitals, hospices and other medical institutions are heavily influenced by the culture of death.
Take Dominic Wilkinson, a physician specializing in newborn intensive care and medical ethics in the UK. In May of 2010 he wrote about organ donation euthanasia without batting an eye. As for those patients who are arbitrarily deemed “hopeless,” he wrote the following:
“We can give them the option in advance to donate their organs if they are ever going to have their treatment limited because their prognosis is deemed hopeless. If the person agreed in advance to be such an organ donor, and an independent committee confirmed that the patient’s prognosis was hopeless and treatment should be stopped, the patient could be taken to an operating theatre in controlled circumstances, given a general anesthetic and have their organs removed. The surgical procedure would be a form of euthanasia. We could call it ‘organ-donation euthanasia’.”
The doctor is quite unapologetic about calling this procedure “euthanasia.” And it seems that it is gaining currency in the United States. I had a conversation with a doctor at my local parish and she confirmed for me that harvesting organs from patients who are supposedly dying is carried out even when there are signs of viability. In such cases, time is the enemy. In order for a patient’s organs to remain viable for a successful transplant there is a great deal of pressure to harvest them while there is still life.
Julie Grimstad, writer and editor of Euthanasia: Imposed Death and the executive director of Life is Worth Living, Inc., had issued the warning about the growing temptation of the medical community to prematurely declare a person dead. She said, “Today, death is often hastily declared, not for the patients welfare, but in order to ensure that the desired organs are alive.” Grimstad speaks to the graphic reality of current medical practices when the patient is still alive:
“In the past, a physician pronounced death when there was no breathing, no heartbeat, and no response to stimulation. Today, a person can be judged ‘brain dead’ while his heart is still beating, and his circulation and respiration are normal. In fact, a ‘brain dead’ organ donor may react violently to the stimulation of being cut into to remove his organs. Surgeons have come to rely on a paralyzing drug to keep the donor's body from squirming and grimacing. However, even though movement is suppressed, the donor's blood pressure and heart rate increase, and his heart continues beating until the surgeon stops it just before removing it.”
The truth is that there is no rigid and uniform criterion for determining when a patient is dead. On this point, Julie Grimstad adds the following:
“There are many different sets of criteria for determining ‘brain death.’ A physician is free to use any set of criteria. Thus, a patient could be pronounced dead by one set, when use of another set would determine that he is still alive. It is also important to know that the medical community is divided about whether ‘brain death’ is actual death.”
Keep in mind that when natural death is not respected as that criterion which determines when life ends then medical intervention can fall into arbitrariness. Also, when there is an incentive, perhaps a financial one, to harvest the organs from a patient who is on the threshold of death, then the premature declaration of death will be (and is) a temptation that is difficult to resist.
I would argue that euthanasia has reached epidemic proportions in America. Once this line has been crossed – and it has – it is difficult to reverse course. Indeed, we do not have to go back too far to see where euthanasia will lead. Germany in the 1930s is one such model. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website does us a favor by reminding us that just as abortion leads to infanticide, euthanasia leads to the murder of other people who are deemed unfavorable:
“The so-called ‘Euthanasia’ program was National Socialist Germany's first program of mass murder, predating the genocide of European Jewry, which we call the Holocaust, by approximately two years…At first, medical professionals and clinic administrators incorporated only infants and toddlers in the operation, but as the scope of the measure widened, they included juveniles up to 17 years of age. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 5,000 physically and mentally disabled German children perished as a result of the child ‘euthanasia’ program during the war years.”
America is growing old. The Baby-Boom generation is now entering the elderly age bracket. As such, when they reach the upper level of the social pyramid, the younger generations will find it difficult to support them; not just economically, but also with providing them medical care in hospitals and other medical facilities. Older patients will far outnumber the younger doctors and nurses. In fact, in many parts of the country, there is a shortage of doctors and nurses already. Because the immensity of the demand, there will be and already is considerable pressure to discharge elderly patients in order to make room for other patients. And are we naive enough to think this demographic trend will not translate into a greater use of euthanasia programs?
Catholics need to be vigilant. Again, like the legalization of abortion, it will be difficult to reverse if the light of the Gospel is not shown in this dark corner of America. Undoubtedly, the problem of euthanasia will be a prolife cause that is bound to equal that of abortion.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.