Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Week in EOL News

In a recent article at The Catholic Sentinel, Richard Doerflinger, Deputy Director for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities continues to develop the church's argument against aid in dying by conflating it with assisted suicide and by citing disregard for the ill or disabled as causes for aid in dying's increasing support and legalization. (I interviewed Doerflinger about the church's new initiative to fight legalization of aid in dying in June.) From the Sentinel article:

The Oregon law carves out a class of citizens — those diagnosed with six months or less to live — and suspends statutes that protect them from getting help to kill themselves. For Doerflinger, it's like coming across two people about to jump off a bridge, one who has a diagnosis of six months or less to live. For one, society tries persuasion, mental health treatment and emergency intervention. But to the one who has a serious physical illness, Doerflinger explained, "We say, 'Jump. Can I give you a push?'"

The issue, he said, is that our culture is uncomfortable with sickness and disability. "We don't see inherent dignity in people when thy have these conditions."

The San Francisco Examiner has been covering the story of Hong Ri Wu, who is accused of killing two of his shop-owner rivals. Wu was determined unsound for trial and then he refused to eat. Local police officials, at the direction of Sheriff Hennessey took him to the hospital but the hospital refuses to put him on a feeding tube. The Examiner writes:

Hennessey insists his department has a mandate to provide for the safety of each inmate. But hospital officials have balked at force-feeding Wu, although spokeswoman Rachael Kagan declined to discuss Wu’s case specifically, citing patient privacy laws.

“As a hospital, we respect individual self-determination and include our patients in their health care decisions,” Kagan said in a statement. “When a patient is also in custody, that patient loses some rights, but not all of them.”

Meanwhile, thousands of California inmates have resumed a hunger strike that is meant to draw attention to their inhumane conditions in that state's facilities. Prison officials are threatening "discipline."


"Baby Joseph" Maraachli die this week. The child, born in Canada with a terminal illness, became a "pro-life" cause when the hospital there refused the family's request for a tracheotomy. The hospital deemed the operation futile. So Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life and other Catholic and "pro-life" groups including the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, raised the funds to have the child airlifted to the US. The first US hospital they sought care from refused, but a Catholic hospital took the child in and completed the procedure. After a brief stay in the US, Priests for Life then shipped the child and his family back to Canada. Pavone said the child and his family had, "fulfilled a mission from God." The case has caused some interesting fault lines to emerge that involve denominational health care, issues of futile care, the treatment of pediatric terminal patients, and, not least, within the Catholic Church regarding the finances of Priest for Life. Father Pavone has since been called back to his home diocese; the causes remain murky.

"Pro-life" groups have said that their objective was to allow the child to die at home, a statement that echoes both home hospice and aid in dying advocates, perhaps signaling broader acceptance that a home death is preferable to a hospital death.


The death of Troy Davis was not the act of a faceless state against a potentially innocent man. Amsterdam News writes about the company that was contracted to oversee the execution, the same company that is contracted to provide health care services to inmates in prisons. For-profit companies are increasingly called in to provide inmates with care in prison settings, in part because the incarceration industry is just that, an industry, with states spending big money to manage their prison populations and high-powered lobbyists pressuring local law makers to "protect" their state citizens by being strong on crime. As well, particularly in the South, prison populations are growing exponentially older and require more health care services. But the challenges for CorrectHealth and other such health care companies operating in prisons is that they are increasingly under fire for unethical and illegal activities, including the use of illegally-acquired execution drugs. Drugs like sodium thiopental, which is part of a three drug series used to execute inmates. It's no longer in easy supply because Abbot Laboratories, its sole US manufacturer, has stopped making the drug. For a while states were purchasing sodium thiopental from the UK but drug officials there have cracked down on it's international export. This scarcity has forced US prisons to beg and barter with each other or to find illegal sources. Writes the Amsterdam:

It was Dr. Carlo Musso, who owns CorrectHealth, a for-profit company that provides what they call "cost effective" health care to prisoners, who managed the process. He does this work under the umbrella of another company he owns, Rainbow Medical Associates, which, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, is contracted by the Georgia Department of Corrections to do its executions.

While some may defend Rainbow Medical Associates as capitalism in action, Musso might find himself in a heap of trouble-of the legal kind-that could do more damage than the backlash from the Davis execution.

Earlier this year, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a complaint against CorrectHealth, accusing them of illegally importing and distributing sodium thiopental, the drug they use in carrying out the execution of convicted felons.


The Atlantic this week wrote about a new documentary that examines the "unique subculture of hospice volunteers as they contemplate their own philosophies of life and death." (h/t Scott Korb)


The Guardian reports on a case in the UK that was brought by the family of a minimally conscious patient to remove her feeding tube. The family of "M" held that she would not want to be kept alive with a feeding tube, but the court did not decide in their favor, stating that her level of consciousness allowed that she may feel discomfort if removed. From the article:

The case raises deep existential and moral questions – questions that law is not well equipped to answer. The Mental Capacity Act does at least, provide a framework for discussion but it offers no guidance on how each factor should be weighted. For the family, the key factor was that M's continued existence was not what she would have wanted. For Mr Justice Baker, the decisive factor was the preservation of life.

As with abortion, the language used to discuss end of life and patients' rights continues to be muddied up, with each side claiming to stand for the patient. Wesley J. Smith's recent scree against futile care is telling. He's taken up the rubric of patients' rights, claiming that a patient who wants just one more chance at beating cancer should be able to make that decision for themselves, regardless of limited health care resources, the doctor's recommendations, or that of the hospitals where the patients are treated. I've said very much the same thing myself, here, repeatedly. But what Smith and others fail to miss -- and this is a conservative blind spot that we see exploited often -- systems and culture affect how patient's view their health care choices. Those concerned with futile care recognize that a culture of "do everything" is responsible for the increase of treatments and services that won't save lives and often prolong death. Those of us who stand for patient's rights -- a person's right to choose what their best path of treatment may be -- must be careful to recognize that cultural influences and not just the individual's ideas about their fate can play a role in the patient's choice. If you want to stand for choice in all cases, abortion advocates have long known, you have to stand for even the choices you don't agree with.

Don't miss Smith's knock of the Veteran's Administration, the largest provider of health care in the US and conservative's primary example, after medicare, of how the government mismanages health care.

Patient's rights is a term I use often but independence and individual rights are only half the conversation. We're also members of a community and creators of a culture that establishes values even as we espouse them. Simple calls for patients' rights (or women's rights, etc.) are only part of the challenge those who wish to address the vagaries of our health care system (or it's absence) must consider.

Smith, who claims to be a bioethicist, often blames greed for what he says is a pervasive "culture of death." With many issues like pentagon spending, incarceration, and social services, I've said pretty much the same thing. But what Smith misses is the responsibility that society has to the patient to prepare them for death and to do no unjust harm. Futile care often stymies both. And it's preventing us from talking about death and health care in practical, dignified ways.


Read Catholics for Choice's recent open letter to Kathleen Sebelius, posted at Politico, here. The group is fighting The Catholic Church's heavy lobbying for less restrictive conscience laws in the new insurance coverage guidelines. The Church claims that allowing insurance programs to cover contraception is an offense to their religious conscience and that clauses in the new regulations are far too narrow for their health care providers to work according to their faith. In other words, Catholics for Choice wishes to remind the government that the influential priests who have mobilized against the regulations do not speak for the US's Catholic community but for the Vatican. Or rather, their male dictatorial selves.


Funny how long it took the Wall Street Journal to pick up this study about the public's views of those in persistent vegetative states.

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