Archbishop Gomez: Christian doctors face increasing threats

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Faithful Catholics need to be aware of the ever-increasing serious threats to Christians living their faith in the field of medicine, warned Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles.

Noting the annual White Mass for health care professionals in the archdiocese, which was held at the cathedral Oct. 23, the archbishop reflected in his weekly column on the history of Christians in medicine.

"Before Christianity, the healing arts were practiced by self-taught individuals who traveled from town to town," he said. "Christians invented the hospital and were the first to establish medicine as a profession, with standards for training and care and a commitment to medical research."

From the very beginning, Archbishop Gomez said, Christian doctors served all patients that came to them, including those of different religions, social statuses and people with highly contagious diseases.

Some doctors even died from the diseases they contracted from their patients, he said. "Historians tell us that Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick and dying during the plagues and epidemics that afflicted the late Roman Empire."

"Something else distinguished early Christian doctors," the archbishop continued, "from the beginning they refused to take part in abortion, infanticide, birth control, assisted suicide or castration, all of which they considered bad medical practice and contrary to the truths of the Gospel."

But while these basic commitments by Catholic doctors and nurses remain, the surrounding world of health care has greatly changed, he said.

Archbishop Gomez pointed to current challenges ranging from the rise of insurance costs to new pressure on doctors to treat patients in a certain way.

Particularly troubling, he said, is the rise of assisted suicide measures, which are being considered this fall in several states.

California legalized the practice of assisted suicide earlier this year. In the months that followed, abuses have already been seen, including a terminally ill woman being denied insurance coverage for a doctor-recommended chemotherapy treatment, but being told that her insurance would cover drugs for suicide.

"We must continue to oppose assisted suicide as an unjust and dangerous public policy," Archbishop Gomez said. "It gives 'end of life options' to those who already have the privilege of good health care. But for the poor, it will make suicide by prescription the 'recommended' or only option. In fact, this year's California budget includes $2.3 million to subsidize giving lethal drugs to the poor through the Medi-Cal system."

"Assisted suicide is not only being promoted for the poor, but also for the mentally ill," the archbishop added. "State officials have already published disturbing new regulations to require doctors who work in state institutions for the mentally ill to help their patients kill themselves if they request it."

And coercion of doctors is making the situation worse for Christian health care professionals, Archbishop Gomez said.

He pointed to the medical journal Practical Ethics, which recently published a statement by prominent bioethicists making the argument that doctors should have no ability to make a medical judgment call against performing any legally permitted procedure.

Any doctor who declines to perform a requested procedure, the bioethicists said, should face a tribunal and be made "to compensate society and the health system for their failure to fulfill their professional obligations."

"Writing in the influential international journal, Bioethics, another group of leading bioethicists titled their article: 'Doctors have no right to refuse medical assistance in dying, abortion or contraception'," the archbishop said.

Other areas of coercion in medicine nationwide include efforts to remove longstanding conscience protections and force doctors and nurses to perform abortions, sterilizations, and sex reassignment surgeries, he added.

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Responding to these ongoing concerns, Archbishop Gomez highlighted efforts in the archdiocese to promote a culture of life and freedom of conscience.

The area's Catholic hospitals and religious sisters offer care to the whole person and provide care for the elderly and dying. In addition, the archdiocesan Office of Life, Justice and Peace is offering guidance on end-of-life issues.  

The archdiocese is also home to Dr. Ira Byock, founder of the Providence Institute for Human Caring and one of the leading global authorities on end-of-life care.

Archbishop Gomez concluded his reflections by emphasizing the importance of prayer, encouraging the faithful to "ask our Blessed Mother Mary, the Health of the Sick, to help us build a new culture of conscience, compassion and care."

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