The Emilio debate rages on, as the Catholic Church weighs in on its moral obligations versus its legal requirements....
Medical guidance from the church
In Gonzales case, church teachings are interpreted differently
By Eileen E. Flynn
Sunday, April 15, 2007
The mother says it's murder. The doctors call it mercy. Each claims that Catholic teachings on end-of-life care support their positions.In the case of Emilio Gonzales, the 17-month-old boy with a terminal disease at Children's Hospital of Austin, the decision over whether to remove him from a respirator has been steeped in legal maneuverings and court rulings. But because both Emilio's mother, Catarina Gonzales, and the Seton Family of Hospitals rely on the Roman Catholic Church for guidance, theological questions on the boy's care have generated another layer of debate over Catholic doctrine that permits ending medical care for dying patients.
Gonzales brought her son to the Seton-run Children's Hospital with a collapsed lung on Dec. 27. Emilio was put on life support in the pediatric intensive care unit the next day, then doctors told her that Emilio suffered from a rare, incurable disorder that causes the central nervous system to break down. Since then Gonzales, doctors and hospital officials have clashed over how to care for Emilio, with Gonzales seeking more aggressive treatment and doctors recommending withdrawal of life support. In trying to weigh the sanctity of life against the desire for a dignified death, Bishop Gregory Aymond supports the doctors' decision."It is my responsibility as a shepherd to make sure we are respecting human life and that we are not in any way carelessly taking human life or not respecting the dignity of human life," he said.
Meanwhile, Gonzales has said that she's sought counsel from her Lockhart priest and believes that God will take her son when it's time. Her conscience tells her to keep fighting to keep Emilio alive until that time comes. And she's found support from organizations that say Catholic teaching backs her position, not the hospital's. The conflict is now before Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman, who has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to decide whether to require the doctors to continue treating Emilio while his mother looks for another facility that will take him.
As medical technology evolves, the church continually reviews its position on medical ethics, striving to balance the Catholic view that life is sacred with the desire to provide dignity in natural death.In 1980, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department that oversees Catholic doctrine, released a declaration on euthanasia that said it's morally acceptable to discontinue extraordinary, or disproportionate, care when a patient's death is imminent. In his 1995 encyclical "The Gospel of Life," Pope John Paul II wrote that such a step was not equivalent to euthanasia or suicide, that "it rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death."The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoes those sentiments in its directives for health care services, the guidelines Seton's ethics committee used in its review. Abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide clearly violate Catholic teaching, the document states, but the rules on withdrawing treatment reveal the complexities of weighing medical technology, family desires and what's best for the patient."The use of life-sustaining technology is judged in light of the Christian meaning of life, suffering, and death," the directives state. "Only in this way are two extremes avoided: on the one hand, an insistence on useless or burdensome technology even when a patient may legitimately wish to forgo it and, on the other hand, the withdrawal of technology with the intention of causing death."Determining when not to use available technology is the difficult part, said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a neuroscientist on staff at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, who has been following the Gonzales case closely."There is a clear downward trajectory here," he said. "This child is dying. The question is what do we have to do in order to provide proper care to a dying individual."In cases like these, he said, the church teachings are clear that removing Emilio from life support would be morally acceptable.Though some have drawn comparisons between Emilio and Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed in 2005, the church sees the situations as distinctly different, Pacholczyk said."Terri Schiavo was not dying of anything," he said, which is why church leaders rallied to try to prevent ending her care. She was a disabled person who died because she was denied nutrition and hydration, a step the Catholic Church would never sanction, he said.
But that's what Emilio's doctors are proposing, argues Burke Balch, director of the Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics, which handles euthanasia issues. The boy is receiving nutrition and breathing assistance, which he believes the church would consider ordinary care."In Catholic teaching, if you omit treatment with the intent of bringing about death, that is considered euthanasia, which is forbidden," he said. "And in this case, that seems to be the object aimed at."
On Feb. 19, Emilio's doctors consulted with the pediatric and neonatal ethics committee, a group of people from the community who review difficult cases and make sure Seton adheres to Catholic teaching in its health care practices.The hospital was founded by the Daughters of Charity and preserves the mission of those nuns. The committee first advised doctors to pursue more options for the boy. But the following month, after Emilio's condition worsened, members determined that continued treatment was futile. Between meetings with doctors and the Gonzales family, the committee also met with Aymond, said Michael Regier, general counsel for the Seton hospital system."We regularly consult with the bishop," he said, "particularly on issues where we think there may be some likelihood that the issues could be (the topic of) public discussion or debate."Aymond turned to national and international bioethicists and theologians and said he tried to weigh the details of Emilio's situation against the overall philosophy issued from the Vatican. Aymond said he's satisfied with the hospital's conclusion."From the documentation I have read from the doctors and the ethics committee," he said, "the hospital staff and administration have acted responsibly and what they are suggesting to do is in accordance with church teaching."But he would not say that Catarina Gonzales is wrong to seek continued treatment, and he said he would like to meet with her to talk about the church's teachings."The difficulty that we always run into is that very often for any of us, whether it's a bishop, a priest, a lay person, we may understand something theologically and theoretically, what we feel about it is very different," Aymond said.