Why a Palliative Care Culture is Needed Now More Than Ever

Mother Angeline Teresa with Resident

Recently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering death with dignity laws. These laws make it possible for terminally ill patients to use prescribed medication to end their lives peacefully rather than suffering a difficult death. The New York State Assembly has introduced a number of death with dignity bills since 2015. New York legislators are now considering a bill called the Medical Aid in Dying Act in the state assembly and in the senate that would allow terminally ill patients who meet certain requirements to request life-ending medication.

The Catholic Church and groups that advocate for the disabled and elderly are strongly opposed to the legislation. The Evangelist, the official publication of the Diocese of Albany, NY, quoted Bishop Scharfenberger in a February 2019 article on this proposed law: “Legislation that removes equal protection from any human life devalues all human lives. Despite sanitized language, it sanctions murder by another name for some utilitarian purpose, typically political or economic. As we are seeing after the Reproductive Health Act, so also with proposed ‘assisted suicide,’ will more lives be deemed useless, inconvenient or dispensable. It is the Christian way – and the way of any humane society – to accompany the sick, disabled and most vulnerable, not to eliminate them.”

In this article Sister M. Peter Lillian Di Maria, O.Carm, said of the legislation. “I don’t agree with it in any sense. It’s not permissible according to our Judeo-Christian tradition to take life. You can call it whatever you like – it’s still taking a human life.”  The Catholic Church has long supported palliative care, even if that care may hasten death. The Church has never taught that you must use all available means to sustain life when life is clearly near its end.

Palliative care, by definition, is specialized care for people with a serious illness; it does not have to be a terminal illness. The goal is to bring comfort in all areas of suffering not only for the resident, but also for the family.

Since 1929, it has been the mission of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm to care for elders by serving in, sponsoring, or cosponsoring long-term care facilities. A key value of the Carmelite Sisters’ philosophy of elder care is keeping the dignity of the person intact. Essential to realizing this is understanding each person’s story and recognizing his or her suffering in terms of mind, body and spirit. This includes reaching out to family and loved ones who are attempting to make sense of the pain they too are experiencing. Carmelite palliative care helps people through this time without their needing to turn to a lethal dose of pills. It draws on the support of the sisters, staff, and family to maintain the dignity and individuality of the person until the end.

“The dignity of the human person should always be respected first, and (assisted suicide) takes the dignity away,” Sister Peter said. “Being compassionate to people means we are called to ‘be’ with and accompany them, always affirming their human dignity no matter how incapacitated they may (or have) become.”

“When we are privileged to sit by the bedside of those who are critically ill and in the dying process, we begin to understand the sacredness of this time for families and friends as they share in conversations and in silence,” she said. “We witness the true meaning of the word ‘compassion,’ which literally means ‘to suffer with’ and it allows us to honor their shared experience as they accompany their loved one on this journey to God. Pro assisted-suicide organizations such as Compassion and Choices have robbed the meaning from our understanding of ‘compassion.’ We need to take its meaning back.” Sister Peter adds that it really comes down to putting yourself in God’s hands.

“We trust God’s plan,” she said. “Would you rather be trusting God’s plan for each person or allow legislation to determine a plan? You decide.