MUMBAI, India – After the Supreme Court in India issued a judgement allowing terminally ill patients to make a “living will” allowing passive euthanasia, the nation’s bishops said the “Church rejects any proposal concerning active euthanasia as well as passive euthanasia.”
The March 9 decision says people may make arrangements for withdrawal of treatment if they have a terminal illness and are in a vegetative state. Passive euthanasia includes switching off life-support machines, disconnecting feeding tubes, refusing life-extending operations, and not administering life-extending drugs.
The Indian judges said the right to die with dignity was a fundamental right and that an advance directive by a person in the form of a living will could be approved by the courts.
“No one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. No one has the right to ask for this act of killing for ourselves or for those entrusted to our care,” said Father Stephen Fernandes, the National Secretary of the Office for Justice, Peace, and Development for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
“The taking of innocent life is never a moral act. Legalizing euthanasia would place the lives of vulnerable people at risk, including those whom others might be tempted to think would be better off dead,” Fernandes said in a statement.
The priest noted the Catholic Church does not object to a patient refusing “over-zealous” treatment that is burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome.
“Especially at the end of life, when it is clear that death is imminent and inevitable, no matter what medical procedures are attempted, one may refuse treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted,” Fernandes said.
The Church has constantly affirmed that nutrition and ordinary medical treatment cannot be discontinued.
However, some in the Catholic medical community say that a “living will” can help navigate these ethical waters.
“The living will is the right thing to do,” said Dr. Armida Fernandez, Medical Director of Holy Family Hospital at Bandra.
The doctor – who has been honored by the Diocesan Human Life Committee of the Archdiocese of Bombay for her work in providing palliative care for the terminally ill and the elderly – told Crux such agreements have been used by the medical community, but they were not legally binding.
Father Caesar D’Mello, a moral theologian and former rector of Mumbai’s archdiocesan seminary, is cautious about the Supreme Court ruling.
“In the 1980s, a private member introduced a bill on the right to die with dignity, which seemed perfectly okay on the surface but when one read the detailed provisions of the bill, what the bill was saying was that the medical practitioner who ultimately took the decision to end the life was not to be held responsible,” he told Crux.
“With this judgment, many hospitals would have to change their rules and also establish independent ethics committees to decide on difficult cases,” D’Mello said.
At the bishops’ conference, Fernandes said India must do more to adequately provide end-of-life care.
“Better access to high quality palliative care, greater support for care givers and enhanced end-of-life care will be the hallmark of a truly compassionate society,” the priest said. “The mark of a good society is its ability and willingness to care for those who are most vulnerable.”