in End-of-Life Care
spent only one night in the intensive care unit.
Then they brought me back to my own room, where I experienced the
discomforts one normally encounters after going through extensive surgery.
I wanted to pray, but the physical discomfort was overwhelming.
I remember saying to the friends who visited me, “Pray while you’re
well, because if you wait until you’re sick you might not be able to do it.”
They looked at me, astonished. I
said, “I’m in so much discomfort that I can’t focus on prayer.
My faith is still present. There
is nothing wrong with my faith, but in terms of prayer, I’m just too
preoccupied with the pain...
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The Gift
is much more than an unpleasant sensation experienced by a patient.
It can affect the total life of the patient. Pain can impair physical functioning, affect a patient’s
mood, and hinder social interaction. As
Cardinal Bernardin pointed out, pain can even affect the patient’s ability to
Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services
from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1994) affirms that “patients
should be kept as free of pain as possible so that they may die comfortably and
with dignity...” (no. 61).
people are reluctant to use narcotic medication to relieve severe pain because
of a fear of becoming addicted. Actually,
this fear is unwarranted. First,
addiction rarely occurs in a healthcare setting.
One estimate is that “less than 0.1% of patients develop addiction” (Lisson,
“Ethical Issues in Pain Management,” Seminars
in Oconology Nursing, May 1989). Further,
a distinction can be made between addiction
and drug dependence.
In the case of drug dependency, the drug has a medical value for the
person taking it, and the dependence is a physical one. Withdrawal symptoms will
occur if the drug is taken away suddenly, so that it needs to be taken away
gradually over a period of time. Addiction, on the other hand, is a
psychological problem. The drug has
no medical value for the person taking it, but the individual desires it and is
driven to obtain it. A dying
patient may become physically dependent on a drug, but this does not mean that
she or he is addicted to it. And, in the case of dying patients, the pain
medication need never be withdrawn to cause any distress.
Knowing the difference between “drug dependence” and “addiction”
can be reassuring to patients and their families.
ethical question about pain management has concerned the use of pain medication
in circumstances which may hasten the patient’s death by depressing
respiration. Some fear that they
are engaging in an act of euthanasia when administering pain medication in such
circumstances. However, the
Catholic Church has taken the position that “medicines
capable of alleviating or suppressing pain may be given to a dying
person, even if this therapy may indirectly shorten the person’s life so long
as the intent is not to hasten death” (Ethical
and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, no. 61). But how does one judge intent?
This is one way: if a patient’s pain is relieved by a certain dosage
level of the pain medication, the level will not be deliberately increased to
risk depression of respiration (and death).
This indicates that the intent is indeed to relieve pain.
we are beginning to move beyond this problem with pain medication.
For one thing, more is now known about how to administer pain medication
in a way that avoids depression of
respiration: “...some patients may need, and can tolerate, 1,000 milligrams or
more of morphine per hour, as in intravenous infusion, to control the ferocious
pain of some cancers. Such doses
are not reached overnight but infusions are
judiciously titrated upwards in measured increments until pain is contained.
In this way respiratory distress does not occur, since unrelieved pain
acts as a physiological antagonist to the respiratory depresssent effect of the
opiate drug.” (Catholic Health Association, Care
of the Dying, 1993)
most pain can be successfully managed, some dying persons do experience severe
pain which cannot be relieved by methods currently available.
In these cases some people push for euthanasia or assisted suicide as a
way of relieving the suffering of those
who are dying. An alternative is
sedation of the patient to the point of unconsciousness on a continuing basis
until death occurs.
moral permissibility of sedation which suppresses consciousness has been
addressed by Pope John Paul II in
Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life):
“Pius XII affirmed that it is licit to relieve pain by narcotics, even when
the result is decreased consciousness and a shortening of life, ‘if no other
means exist, and if, in the given circumstances, this does not prevent the
carrying out of other religious and moral duties.’ ...All the same, ‘it is
not right to deprive the dying person of consciousness without a serious
reason’: as they approach death people
ought to be able to satisfy their moral
duties, and above all they
ought to be able to prepare in a fully conscious way for their definitive
meeting with God.” (65) Similarly, the Ethical
and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services states: “Since
a person has the right to prepare for his or her death while fully conscious, he
or she should not
deprived of consciousness without a
compelling reason” (no. 61).
sum, the practice of sedating patients to the point of unconsciousness on a
continuing basis until death occurs does not seem to be totally excluded by
Catholic teaching, but must be approached cautiously and with restrictions
attached. There must be a
“serious” or “compelling” reason for depriving the patient of
consciousness. (Undoubtedly, some would contend
that unrelievable pain which is so severe that it makes a patient repeatedly
request euthanasia or assisted suicide satisfies this condition.)
Further, we must ensure that the patient has had the opportunity to
satisfy practical and moral obligations which require maintaining consciousness
(e.g., settling important
inheritance matters, becoming reconciled with estranged family members) and to
prepare spiritually for death (e.g., receiving
Viaticum). In addition, ethicists would want to add the condition that such
sedation should be undertaken only with the consent of the patient, if he or she
is mentally competent.
Prepared by Janine Marie Idziak, Ph.D. Health Care Consultant, Archdiocese of Dubuque, IA July 2000 This document may be reproduced.