Last Rights: Mixed Messages on End-of-Life Morality Aren't Good Medicine for Struggling Families

Article excerpt

"DYING MUST BE LIKE FALLING ASLEEP AFTER MAKING love, tired, tranquil with that sense of wonder that pervades everything." So wrote 60-year-old Piergiorgio Welby in his online journal before his death in December from muscular dystrophy. Welby, an Italian, had been breathing with the assistance of a ventilator--against his expressed wishes--since 1997, after the disease he'd lived with since the age of 18 finally paralyzed nearly his entire body.

Despite such obvious insight about death, however, Welby was denied a Catholic funeral by the Diocese of Rome because he had "repeatedly and publicly" expressed "a wish to die." Pope Benedict, Welby's diocesan bishop, argued that life should be maintained "until its natural sunset." This despite the fact that Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan of the Pontifical Council for Health Care acknowledged that Welby's ventilator was a medical treatment that could be legitimately withdrawn if, as the Catechism puts it, it was "burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome."

Welby had indeed become an advocate for the right to refuse treatment, recently writing a book, Let Me Die (Rizzoli), in which he asked the Italian government for what he called "euthanasia." The questions he asked, however, echo those of many facing difficult decisions about end-of-life care: "What is natural about a body kept biologically functional with the help of artificial respirators, artificial feeding, artificial hydration, artificial intestinal emptying, of death artificially postponed?"

While church teaching forbids euthanasia--an "act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death," according to the Catechism--it also supports a patient's (or his or her legal agent's) freedom to refuse what the Catechism calls "overzealous" treatment, though it does not offer a list of what qualifies. Welby's case highlights the confusion created when the actions of some church leaders seem to contradict this already complicated moral teaching.

In this country the case of Terri Schiavo put that confusion in sharp relief. Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman who died in March 2005 after tubes providing nutrition and hydration were withdrawn, became a center of controversy when Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life began denouncing the withdrawal in the media. …