Catholic groups call for ethical healthcare triage in coronavirus pandemic

Child sick hospital Credit ikontee Shutterstock CNA ikontee/Shutterstock.

Catholic healthcare and bioethics groups have called for national protocols that eschew discrimination by age or disability as patients of the coronavirus pandemic are assigned medical care, including scarce resources like ventilators.

"We call for a national set of clear and ethical triage protocols that affirm the dignity of all people. Until then, we urge hospitals and health care professionals to adopt protocols that protect the vulnerable and reject discrimination. The principle of the equal dignity and value of every human life depend on it," the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the Christus Medicus Foundation said in an April 9 statement.

"America's healthcare workers on the frontlines are already confronting this question as they work to save lives in unprecedented triage situations in our homeland. The situation will worsen in the coming days. Who is given lifesaving care in a time of limited intensive care capacity and rationed equipment is one of the greatest moral questions our nation has ever faced," the statement added.

"How we respond is a reflection of our values, one that will define us forever."

On Thursday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan agreed.

"I sit here in New York, the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. It is imperative to provide our exhausted healthcare heroes with the tools they need to be able to make true and sound ethical decisions to all patients in their care. I join together with the NCBC ethicists, and others, in asking that all people are treated equally and with the God-given dignity they deserve," Dolan said.

The groups said that making decisions about healthcare allocation should not include discrimination based upon age or disability, assessment of the "quality of life" of patients, or metrics based upon the likely remaining lifespan of the patient apart from the illness.

"We urge hospitals and healthcare workers to use survivability as the litmus test for rationing care during triage. Anything more is stereotyping. Once decisions are expanded to include nonclinical factors and value judgments, discrimination and injustice inevitably ensue," the statement said.

Dr. Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, explained that "the ethical principles guiding such protocols must reject utilitarian or value-laden assessments that extend beyond the crisis situation and enshrine the view that some lives have more value than others."

Healthcare rationing and discrimination has been a topic of controversy in recent weeks, amid the global coronavirus pandemic that has taken hold of the U.S. healthcare system.

On Wednesday, the federal department of Health and Human Services resolved a disability rights case with Alabama officials, after the state removed controversial triage guidelines recommending that people with severe intellectual disabilities be denied ventilators in the event of shortages at medical facilities.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said April 8 that it had conducted a compliance review of the state following complaints that its 2010 guidelines for triage care allegedly discriminated against people with intellectual disabilities. Alabama has agreed to remove its ventilator rationing guidelines from state websites, HHS said April 8.

"People with intellectual disabilities must be treated the same way, and not be treated as somehow less fit, or less worthy, of having their lives saved, compared to somebody who has greater intellectual abilities," stated Roger Severino, head of the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR), in a Wednesday conference call with reporters.

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