Medical ethics conference delves into life, dignity

At a dark moment when the ethics of health care, especially concerning end-of-life issues, are being confronted with economic pressure and the growth of assisted suicide, the fundamental dignity of the human person needs to be paramount in any medical discussion, Arland Nichols, president and founder of the St. John Paul II Foundation, told 225 persons attending a “Converging Roads: Health Care and Human Dignity” conference March 16 at Schulte Auditorium.

The daylong conference, presented by the foundation, the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Respect Life Office and Notre Dame Seminary, emphasized the Catholic Church’s wisdom in defending human life at all stages, which Nichols said is easily discerned through the natural law.

Beware unbridled license
Nichols said human dignity can be analyzed in two ways: personal dignity, “which we possess simply by being a member of the human species,” and moral dignity, “which waxes and wanes depending on how we use our freedom.”

“Personal dignity is a permanent endowment by virtue of us being the creatures that we are,” Nichols said. “Every life is sacred and inviolable, even one who has done great harm.”

Moral dignity can be demeaned, Nichols said, “by choosing evil.”

“Unlike animals, we have the freedom to choose a great good, even though it involves tremendous sacrifice,” Nichols said.

He mentioned as an example the heroic work of St. Damien of Molokai, who lived with those who had contracted leprosy and died from the disease himself.

“Medical professionals have a profound responsibility to use their knowledge and freedom well in practicing the art of medicine and applying that art in the person who comes to you, entrusting their life in your hands,” he said.

When each person becomes an arbiter of what is good or evil – the license to whatever he or she wants “as long as another person is not harmed” – atrocities can occur under the realm of distorted freedom, he said.

“Slavery, abortion of innocent human beings in the womb, the murder of innocent Jews in the Holocaust, Rwanda – such horrors remind us of how important it is that we get ‘freedom’ right,” Nichols said.

Taking a question about how best to explain why abortion is wrong, Nichols said history “always condemns” actions taken by governments or individuals that people are not human – “that an African American in the United States is not human or only half-human, that an embryo in the womb is not human. God-willing, (that will happen) in our country with babies in the womb. Once we acknowledge their humanity – that this is a member of the species – then we need to ask, why are some members of the human species treated differently?”

The conference included a talk by Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, who spoke about the church’s very nuanced stance on end-of-life issues.

The center offers a hotline – (215) 877-2660 – for people to discuss with Catholic medical ethicists a loved one’s medical treatment near the end of life. 

Father Pacholczyk said there is no definitive “list” of medical procedures that would be termed “extraordinary” or “disproportionate” care because every case is different.

“There are two key criteria – benefit vs. burden,” Father Pacholczyk said. “What we are called to do here, in integrity of conscience and clarity of mind, is to make a good prudential judgment.”

Dorinda Bordlee of the Bioethics Defense Fund told the medical professionals about a new federal agency – the Office for Civil Rights – to which they can report violations of health care rights of conscience.

That website is https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/index.html.

Meets synod goals
Debbie Shinskie, director of the archdiocesan Respect Life Office, said the conference aligned with synod goals to share “respect life” issues with those in the medical community.

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