Catholic bishops endorse Texas 'death panels' bill

Updated article

The Roman Catholic bishops of Texas and an allied pro-life organization on one side, and a national pro-life organization on the other, fundamentally disagree over a bill now before the Texas legislature.

The National Right to Life Committee, which has an affiliate in Texas, called for the defeat of Senate Bill 303 in the Texas legislature, arguing that the bill “would allow doctors to impose ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders on patients even if doing so would violate the patient’s express wishes.” 

“Texas S.B. 303 violates the most fundamental tenet of patient autonomy by allowing doctors to strip patients or their surrogates of the right to dictate their wishes with regard to CPR,” said Burt Balch, an attorney with National Right to Life who focuses on medical ethics. "We appeal to anyone who cares about patient autonomy or the right to live to shine the light of outraged public opinion on this dangerous bill," he said.

The bill was sponsored by State Senator Bob Deuell (R), a physician who represents counties near Dallas.

(TX Senator Bob Deuell MD)
Balch explained that the Texas bill would authorize doctors to impose a DNR order over the protest of a patient or surrogate, and would give doctors the “unilateral authority to deny CPR, thus imposing involuntary death on patients, with little recourse for patients or their surrogates to seek relief from an imposed DNR order.” 
The bill has been endorsed, however, by a small pro-life group, Texas Alliance for Life, and the Roman Catholic bishops of the Lone Star State.
 
Texas Alliance for Life describes itself as a non-partisan and non-denominational pro-life organization. However, it is housed at the same address as the offices of St. Austin Catholic Parish in Austin, Texas, adjacent to the campus of the University of Texas.
 
In a statement released in January, the bishops declared that they were joining a coalition of the “state's largest pro-life organizations, healthcare providers, and religious denominations” in support of the bill, stating that it would “improve the state's handling of end-of-life care in a way that balances the protections of human life and a medical provider's conscience.” 
 
The bishops’ statement said that the bill would reform the Texas Advance Directives Act, passed when George Bush was governor, “to improve the statute’s clarity and consistency about many ethical decisions amid the complexity of end-of-life care.”
 
The bishops claimed that the current law can be interpreted to allow for the premature withdrawal of care for patients who may have irreversible, but non-terminal, conditions. It also asserted that current law “fails to ensure that all patients are provided with basic nutrition and hydration, and falls short in ensuring the clearest and most compassionate communication between medical professionals and patient families when disagreements arise.”
 
The bishops’ statement quoted Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, who said "respect and care for the life and personal dignity of the dying patient should be the goals of every individual and institution involved in the process. We are pleased that Senator Deuell’s bill accomplishes these goals by explicitly excluding any form of euthanasia and rejecting an abusive extension of the death process." 
 
Cardinal DiNardo will be a member of the conclave and will vote to elect a new Pope in March.
 
National Right to Life, however, claims if the bill becomes law,  if a patient or surrogate who wants the ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order rescinded, the most they can do is to pay for “a second opinion at the patient’s or surrogate’s expense”, and only after an “opinion has been obtained” from the hospital’s ethics committee.  Should a patient go into cardiopulmonary arrest in the meantime, for example, the patient would suffer involuntary death without resuscitation. Patients might even be denied an opportunity for a second medical opinion or an appeal to the hospital ethics committee. 
 
Balch explained that "Texas Alliance for Life" is a splinter group that previously was a member of the Austin chapter of Texas Right to Life until it broke off and formed its own organization.  “Only the Texas Right to Life Committee is the recognized state-wide pro-life organization affiliated with the National Right to Life Committee, and it also opposes S.B. 303.”
 
While pointing out that as a non-sectarian organization, Balch explained that National Right to Life does not seek to define the doctrines of any religious organization. He said his organization urges the public “not to be swayed into accepting denial of resuscitation or other life-saving medical treatment against the will of patients and their families” despite the endorsement of any particular denomination, “however much it is entitled to respect…”
 
(Joe Pojman)
Furthermore, Balch explained there continue to be divisions within religious groups. “That is true about abortion and, sadly, it is also true about involuntary denial of lifesaving treatment, food and fluids. There are divisions among Catholics as there are among Methodists or Baptists. Unfortunately, the Texas branch of Catholics has long been at one end of the spectrum.” 
 
Balch pointed out that in the 1990s the majority of the Texas bishops said it is ethical to deny so-called ‘artificial’ food and fluids to permanently unconscious patients like Terri Schiavo, except for one Catholic bishop of Texas who disagreed with them. Balch quoted Bishop Rene Gracida, who said that his colleagues’ position “gives a higher priority to efforts to relieve the burden caused by a serious illness rather than efforts to protect the sick person’s right to life.” 
 
Later, in 2004, Pope John Paul II also disagreed with the majority of the Texas bishops, saying that “the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, ... should be considered  . . .  morally obligatory.”
 
Various requests for comment and interviews sent over two days by Spero News to Texas Alliance for Life and its Executive Director, Joe Pojman, are still unanswered. 
 
 
UPDATE: On February 15, Spero News received the following response from Joe Pojman:
 
Texas Alliance for Life strongly supports Senate Bill 303 because of the vast increase in protections for vulnerable patients it affords compared to the current law in Texas while protecting the conscience of physicians to not be forced by law to provide unethical treatments indefinitely. The NRLC analysis has some significant mischaracterizations, which I will be happy to address.
 
Texas Alliance for Life rents space owned by St. Austin Catholic Church for our office, which is located about six blocks for the Texas Capitol. We do not have any formal relationship with the Catholic Church in general and the Paulist Fathers in particular beyond our lease contract.
 
 
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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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