I attended a bioethics conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio this past weekend. The theme centered on end of life decisions and care. Much was mentioned about when it is appropriate to discontinue food and water by removing the feeding tube.
Dr. Patrick Lee, Director of the Institute for Bioethics at Franciscan assembled a stellar group of ethicists to deal with these issues. Good speakers provoke good thought and even better conversation/debate, which was all in good supply as well. One observation came to me during much of the discussion on case studies.
It seems that we’ve crossed clearly onto euthanasia’s turf. The Terry Sciavo case was illustrative of far more than the issue of patients making statements about how they would prefer to live. Of course none of us would want to live with significant deficits in function. That’s easy to say NOW. Many of the physicians in attendance spoke of how that sentiment changes when patients mourn their loss of function and begin to adjust to their new reality.
The conditions for which people seek the removal of feeding tubes are most often not associated with the futile attempt at extending life whose imminent end is obvious.
People are now seeking to remove sustenance for conditions that are not at all life-threatening, and not even so much a burden for the patient as they are for the family who would be expected to be the care-givers.
Thus, we seek the death of loved ones increasingly that we may avoid our own existential suffering in adjusting to new and chronic realities not foreseen.
Michael Sciavo wanted to cut the ties that bound him to his wife in order to carry on with the woman who had become his common-law wife in-waiting and the mother of his children. At the malpractice trial, Michael swore that the money in a settlement would be used for Terry’s rehab. Once the judgement was made and the cash was in hand, Michael ‘suddenly remembered’ that Terry would not have wanted to live that way. A fact conveniently forgotten at trial.
It’s understandable that people simply cannot fathom a life upended for themselves or their loved ones. We fear the unknown. We fear our lack of capacity to care long term for disability. We legitimately ache for the disabled family member. Death, however, is not the answer to our fears.
Support groups and services abound for every condition under the sun. The great challenge is to learn a different way of living, of being in the world that lifts up the impaired, and strengthens struggling family who must not be mere witnesses, but active care-givers as well.
How do we do it?