A reader writes:
Two months ago, my 88-year-old father-in-law passed away after lung cancer surgery at a Catholic hospital. The surgery was successful, but after two days his lungs filled with fluid, which caused his heart to stop due to lack of oxygen. By the time he was breathing and his heart beating again, his brain lacked oxygen for several minutes. An EEG showed some brain activity but he was effectively in a coma.
My wife had power of attorney and after 10 days of no change decided to remove the breathing machine. He would not want to live this way and his health care directive stated that. They removed the breathing machine, put him on a morphine drip and also injected a large dose of morphine at decreasing intervals. When the breathing machine was removed, his breath rate went from 15 breaths per minute, to 10, then 5, then 3 at each morphine injection until he finally stopped breathing. The whole process took 7 hours.
To me, the actions this Catholic hospital took showed true mercy, and put humanity above doctrine.
If you are not already aware of it, you might look into the case of Eluana Englaro, a young Italian woman who found herself the focus of a sort of mirrored version of the Terri Schiavo affair here in Italy not that long ago.
Ms. Englaro had been in a vegetative state for 17 years after a car accident. Whereas the parents wanted to remove the artificial measures that were keeping her that way, entities within the Italian government (heavily influenced by the Vatican) argued that she must be kept "alive" via such measures indefinitely. As did the Bush administration, Mr. Berlusconi scrambled to gain ad personam legislation allowing him to directly intervene, despite the final court's ruling in the parents' favor (too late, however, to influence the outcome).
After many, many years of appeals, the father ultimately prevailed and was granted the 'privilege' of allowing his brain-dead daughter her final release. The news of Ms. Englaro’s death came as the Upper House of parliament began debating emergency legislation rushed out by the centre-right Government of Berlusconi. It would have ordered medical staff to restore all nutrients.
The Italian "caso Welby" is also worth reviewing: a man with ALS who just had had enough, and begged for years to be released from his pointless suffering. The notion of a "living will" is rather new in Italy, and the discussion of it has circulated around these two cases in particular.
Of course, we need to be on guard about euthanasia. But allowing people to die in peace with dignity seems to me one of the core challenges in this technocratic age. And I find it bizarre that contemporary Christians, so unlike their forefathers, seem intent on fetishizing physical life rather than anticipating the glories of what comes after death.