On Monday evening, I attended a talk given by Sister Nuala Kenny here in Halifax. The subject was the Catholic idea of "a good death".
Sister Kenny (who is also a doctor, a pediatrician) pointed out the irony in the title of the talk, since the Greek word "euthanasia" actually means "good death".
The talk was excellent; I had never heard Sister Kenny speak before, and she is a well-informed and vibrant speaker - lots of character displayed, her use of humour at times very wry, and a logical train of thought presented in terms that the lay person can understand - all of these combined to make her talk exceptional.
Until the last few minutes. The last half hour or so was given over to questions from the audience and the inevitable question was raised: what about the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration from patients who are diagnosed as being in a coma that seems irreversible or who are in a "persistent vegetative state"?
Dr. (or Sister, if you prefer) Kenny began by saying that she had hoped that confusing issue wouldn't be raised, because with it comes the case of Terry Schiavo, a woman considered to be in a "persistent vegetative state" who was being kept alive by food and water through tubes.
She said, and I agree, that Terry Schiavo's death was an example of a death that was not good in any sense. However, she went on to say that, much as she tries to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, in this case she had to disagree with Pope John Paul II. The Pope had stated that the doctors should not withdraw food and hydration from Terry Schiavo, because doing so would cause her death. President Bush also tried to intervene in the case, I believe.
Dr. Kenny stated that she felt the Pope was over-reacting, out of his commitment to his pro-life position, and his collosal effort to resist the culture of death. Although Dr. Kenny did not state that feeding should be stopped, she did indicate that keeping a person like Terry Schiavo on tubal feeding was a waste of medical resources, since she had no quality of life whatsoever. She also stated that the photos that were released in the media showed a woman who was simply reacting to her mother's face, they did not show a woman who could experience emotions or feelings at all.
Dr. Kenny had previously stated that, with the advance of technology, we can now keep people alive who could not have been sustained previously. And therefore, some technologies serve not to prolong life, but rather to prolong death. She also stated that some measures should not be used, as they are "extraordinary", and when death is in the foreseeable future, that we should let nature takes its course.
I have absolutely no problem with that, I believe Dr. Kenny is right.
However, feeding and giving nutrition by tube, is hardly an extraordinary measure. Medical staff have been doing this for decades and it is perfectly "ordinary". If you walk through any ward in any hospital, you see patients on IV apparatus in almost half the rooms, if not more.
I asked Dr. Kenny if giving Terry Schiavo hydration by IV was "extraordinary"? I said that I could see giving nutrition to someone in her state might be seen as prolonging an inevitable death, but surely glucose water is required to keep the patient from experiencing pain. I have read that death by dehydration is extremely painful.
At this point, Dr. Kenny got quite upset and stated clearly that "one should wish to die by dehydration, it is painless". She then said that Terry Schiavo's brain had atrophied to 2/3 its normal size (as revealed by the autopsy) and that therefore she felt absolutely no pain because that part of her brain no longer functioned. As she said that, I thought (but didn't say it) that doctors also thought babies felt no pain when they were aborted and have since revised that opinion.
The MC quickly brought the meeting to a close at this point, as we had exceeded the time limit, and Dr. Kenny had the last word on the subject. I was dismayed that the room of 200 people were left with her words in their ears, and I know that almost all of them believe her.
But Dr. Kenny is incorrect in her conclusion about Terry Schiavo. This was a case that I had read about previously and I was aware of quite a few facts about it before I went to this meeting. So I was not taken in by Dr. Kenny's statements.
I hurried home to google some facts about Terry Schiavo, as related by Father Frank Pavone, who spent four hours of her last day with her. And an article by Alex Schadenberg who will be speaking in Halifax on this very subject on November 27/28.
Click here for Father Frank Pavone's testimony of Terry Schiavo's last hours
and here for Alex Schadenberg's article The Death of Terry Schiavo - Euthanasia or Natural Death?
I look forward to hearing Alex in two weeks on this topic and I hope that some of the people who attended Dr. Kenny's talk will also be there. It is unfortunate that a talk sponsored by the diocese, as Dr. Kenny's talk was, resulted in the speaker giving voice to her opinion which is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. The medical profession has been slowly accepting death by dehydration for some time now and, as with abortion, the slippery slope is there once again. It is absolutely essential that we Catholics hold the line on this issue; as with abortion, we will probably be the only ones who will. Thank you, Pope John Paul II, for giving us such clear leadership on the life issues.