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New coalition champions spiritual rights of patients

shutterstock 1704209737 Doctor holding cross and praying. / Florin Deperin/Shutterstock

A new coalition seeks to promote the rights of hospital patients to have “reasonable” access to family and clergy during the pandemic.

The Health Care Civil Rights Task Force is a project of the Christ Medicus Foundation, the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), the Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network, and other groups. The task force issued a statement on Nov. 19 calling for the protection of civil rights during the pandemic, “Defending the Fundamental Dignity and Health Care Civil Rights of All.”

The NCBC’s Dr. Jozef Zalot explained the significance of the statement on the rights of hospital patients to clergy and family visitation during the pandemic.

“We’ve have been stating that since the spring,” Zalot told CNA on Wednesday. “It is absolutely essential,” he said, “that people not have to die alone, and we’re hearing that in consults.” Families have called the center for bioethical consultations, he said, having to make life-or-death decisions for their loved ones while not allowed to be physically present with them at the hospital.

“It’s a huge issue, not only for the patients but for the family members,” Zalot said. “They’re being denied access to see their loved ones, to interact with them, to say goodbye to them, to receive the sacraments of the Church. It’s a huge, huge civil rights issue.”

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Strict hospital visitation policies during the pandemic have received repeated attention from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, which has intervened in several cases for patients to have access to clergy and for disabled patients to have access to an advocate.

In the statement on civil rights in health care, the coalition also called for preservation of access to the sacraments for the faithful and opposition to health care rationing based on a “value” of one’s life.

The statement’s authors warned that state and local COVID restrictions reflect a “chasm” where “[t]he spiritual is increasingly being forgotten, ignored, and trampled,” as churches are closed by public orders and the sacraments are denied to COVID patients.

Members of the Health Care Civil Rights Task Force include National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) president Joseph Meaney, Bobby Schindler—the brother of Terri Schiavo—and officials at the Christ Medicus Foundation and Healthcare Advocacy Leadership Organization.

“A secular view sees saving the physical life of a person as the only goal that matters,” the statement reads. “Faith and reason recognize that both care for spiritual health and care for emotional health are essential parts of health care.”

“However much government and courts want to keep people safe, the rights of the family are preeminent above the rights of the state,” the statement says. “There is no reason that PPE [personal protective equipment] cannot be used to allow reasonable visitation from loved ones in health care settings during this pandemic.”

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Meaney, in particular, issued a statement in November on “the right not to be forced to die alone.” He stated that “simply denying all visitation is an unreasonable policy” for hospitals, and argued for patients and families to have a say in “restricted visitation.”

Meaney has said he was actually hospitalized with a heart condition in May, but could not have a Catholic priest visit to administer Last Rites.

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