Justice can be an elusive concept, changing from century to century. What was accepted in one era, like slavery, can be unthinkable in another.
The biblical test of a just society was based on how people treated the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. These people were the underdogs of society, having no immediate family to protect them.
Who are the underdogs in our era? Who are the people most deserving of protection?
One group is clearly people with disabilities. They frequently have less education, less opportunity for fruitful jobs, and they face a society that is ambivalent about them.
The right to die or the right to live
At the Wisconsin State Bar convention on May 7, Attorney William Colby spoke on “The Right to Die in America.” Colby is the attorney who represented the family of Nancy Cruzan, a woman who was disabled in a car crash. They sought to remove her feeding tube and were successful in their attempt.
A panel discussion followed, which included Attorney Mitch Hagopian of Disability Rights Wisconsin. Hagopian re-focused the discussion by saying, as a representative of people with disabilities, “The issue is not the right to die, but the right to continue to live.” Many people with disabilities face a battle to receive equal medical treatment.
Denying medical treatment
A week after Hagopian spoke, on May 15, 2009, the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal reported Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) filed a lawsuit against UW Hospital and Clinics, administrators, and individual doctors. DRW alleges they denied medical treatment to two disabled people, one of whom died.
After reading the Complaint, Attorney Stephen Mikochik, president of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD), expressed his concern that people with disabilities are often denied equal medical treatment and if the facts alleged prove to be true, that this case opens up a very serious problem. The NCPD expresses the Catholic view on issues that affect people with disabilities.
Why lawsuit was filed
Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) issued a press release giving some background on why the lawsuit was deemed necessary. First, the law of Wisconsin “generally prohibits guardians and parents from withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining medical treatment from wards and children who are not in persistent vegetative states.”
Next, DRW states that they completed two investigations before filing suit. “The first disclosed [that UW Hospital and Clinics] practices and policies resulted in the death of a 13-year-old boy with developmental disabilities after he was denied normal medical treatment for a minor respiratory illness and artificial nutrition and hydration were withdrawn.”
The complaint alleges that this young man, M. E., was transferred from the facility where he was receiving care to UW Children’s Hospital, “not for the purpose of saving M. E.’s life, but to end it.” The assessment and plan was to “Maintain do not resuscitate status and for him to not receive feeds or intravenous fluids [or] . . . antibiotic therapy.”
Catholic teachings emphasize the value of every human life, no matter how challenged, no matter how differently-abled. Each person reflects the image and likeness of God. Catholic teachings also state that one does not have to accept every medical intervention available. If a treatment is unduly burdensome, one need not accept it. However, the administration of antibiotics and nutrition and hydration are rarely deemed burdensome.
The Catholic bishops of Wisconsin wrote a pastoral letter, Now and at the Hour of Our Death, that discusses the difficult questions faced in deciding on medical treatment, especially as the end of life draws near. Priests, Catholic hospital chaplains, and others are available to help Catholics choose appropriate medical care based on each individual’s situation. Copies of the pastoral letter can be obtained by contacting the Office of Justice and Pastoral Outreach (see below).
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Madison does extensive work with people with disabilities. Several group homes provide care that maximizes each person’s abilities and independence. Accomplishments are celebrated and staff creates a loving, accepting environment.
That is the model of care that exemplifies how Catholics are to treat the least of our brothers. By always seeing the face of Jesus in those served, Catholics acknowledge the great worth of each individual.
Risk of quick and cheap answers
As our population ages, we are at increasing risk of the quick and cheap answer to medical costs. Although cost is a consideration in whether or not a treatment is burdensome, it is not the only test.
Recently, a woman in (the state of) Oregon was denied insurance coverage for chemotherapy, but offered coverage for assisted suicide. This is not an acceptable solution for a medical problem. Eventually the woman was able to obtain the curative medicines.
Discuss end of life issues
As Catholics, we must be aware of what our Church actually teaches, by informing ourselves. We should think through end of life decisions, avoiding overly-emotional responses, such as, “I never want to be admitted to a nursing home.” Sometimes, such as after a broken hip or hip surgery, a nursing home is the ideal place to recover or receive therapy.
Another often-heard statement is, “I never want to be hooked up to any machines.” But sometimes extra care is needed, for instance, after a car accident when a respirator might be necessary to stabilize the injured party.
Although discussing end of life issues is not the cheeriest topic, it is a necessary one. The pastoral letter is a good place to begin and the staffs at Wisconsin Catholic Conference and the Office of Justice and Pastoral Outreach are available to speak at your parish to begin the process of understanding what the ethical medical choices are for Catholics.
We need to know what we believe in order to stand for what we believe. By courageously defending the rights of all to appropriate medical care, our society will either meet or fail the test of justice. Let us do all we can to be sure each person receives equal treatment as required by our laws and by our faith.
Susanna Herro, director justice and pastoral outreach for the Diocese of Madison, was elected to the board of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) and recently elected secretary. The NCPD is the U.S. Catholic bishops’ agency to welcome people with disabilities into full participation in the church, including welcoming them to vocations. For copies of Now and at the Hour of Our Death, call 608-821-3086 or e-mail