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Jacob M. Appel

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Pope vs. Doctors: How New Vatican Orthodoxy Undermines Medical Ethics and Imperils Your Health

Posted: 02/10/10 05:31 PM ET

Catholic hospitals, which boast a long and admirable history of caring for the seriously ill and indigent in the United States, have for many years finessed the challenges of serving two disparate and often incompatible masters. On the one hand, the nation's 573 Church-run hospitals and their physicians are not permitted by Vatican policy to offer services or advice to patients when doing so violates Catholic teaching. In theory, prohibited activities range from providing abortions and assisting suicides to urging patients with HIV to wear condoms when engaged in unprotected sex or telling bipolar women on lithium to use contraceptives to prevent birth defects. On the other hand, these hospitals--which serve about one third of all patients in the nation--are also quasi-public institutions, and their physicians and nurses are bound by the same ethical obligations that govern all other members of their professions. They must obtained informed consent, honor patient autonomy, and offer medical care in line with the clinical standards of their colleagues at secular institutions. While a latent tension often exists between these competing allegiances, two recent developments relating to Church policy have set medical ethics and Catholic doctrine on an unfortunate collision course.

The first of these disturbing Church salvos against mainstream medical ethics is to be found in the newly promulgated Directive 58 of the United States bishops' body governing Catholic health care services. This edict states that, barring certain specific circumstances, such as imminent death, Church doctrine prevents competent patients from refusing artificial nutrition and hydration. William Grogan, a religious advisor to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, explained to the media that death would have to be expected within two weeks for a patient to turn down a feeding tube. In other words, according to current Catholic teaching, a cancer patient in a coma with a life expectancy of four weeks must now be force-fed--no matter what his prior instructions stated and without regard to his family's wishes. All comatose and vegetative patients will be required to accept nutrition and hydration indefinitely, even if they leave behind air-tight living wills objecting to such "heroic" and invasive measures. This extreme policy apparently applies to all patients receiving care in Catholic-run hospitals, whether or not they are Catholic. Since United States courts have consistently accepted that mentally-competent patients have a right to refuse care if their wishes are clear and documented, these rules may well be illegal. However, even if Directive 58 is not a violation of the law, it is a gross breach of accepted standards of medical ethics. No doctor or nurse in the United States may provide such unwanted nutrition and hydration without defying a well-established code of professional conduct. It is likely that any provider who acted in this paternalistic and unequivocally immoral manner would lose his or her license. In the very least, the provider would become a pariah among his colleagues.

A second Church-instigated challenge to medical ethics has arisen as a result of a grass roots protest by anti-abortion organizations in Pennsylvania against the well-regarded St. Mary's Medical Center of Langhorne. In this case, Dr. Stephen Smith of St. Mary's performed an ultrasound on an expecting mother and confirmed that the fetus had polycystic kidney disease, a fatal condition in infants. Smith recommended an abortion. When the pregnant women sought a second opinion, a midwife at Mother Bachman Maternity Center in nearby Bensalem, operated by the St. Mary's, also recommended termination. The mother refused, which was certainly her prerogative, and the infant died two hours after birth. When local abortion opponents publicized Smith's advice, a private citizen named Joseph Trevington demanded a formal review of St. Mary's by the local archdiocese. The results of this ethics investigation are not yet publicly known, and may never be revealed, although a diocese spokesman stated that changes in the hospital policies are to be expected.

The very decision to conduct such a moral audit displays a chilling new direction in Church practice. As a matter of doctrine, Catholic hospitals require employees to "respect and uphold the religious mission" of their institutions as "a condition for medical privileges and employment." So, in theory, any physician endorsing abortion (or vasectomies, birth control, withdrawal of life support, etc.) while on the hospital premises should be relieved of his duties. As a matter of Catholic doctrine, Trevington and his anti-abortion brethren appear to have the better half of the theological argument, at least when it comes to consistency and the letter of the law. At the same time, allowing Church dogma to dictate the medical practices of physicians clearly violates the most basic tenets of healthcare ethics. Dr. Smith had a duty to offer advice to his patient based upon his best independent professional judgment--which he apparently did. The Hobson's choice that he faced--either to follow the Catholic "law" enshrined as policy or to adhere to medical obligation--was unreasonable and unacceptable.

Both of these events expose the dark and unspoken (although widely understood) secret that enables Catholic hospitals to practice first-class medicine: Official Church policy on matters such as contraception and end-of-life care, like much Catholic doctrine more generally, is largely honored only in the breach. I have known many excellent physicians over the years, both religious and secular, who work at Church-run hospitals. All of them advise women taking medications that cause birth defects to use contraception and tell HIV-infected patients to use condoms. Many offer direct counseling on abortion, certainly when fetal prognosis is grim. I cannot imagine any of these gifted doctors would force-feed an unwilling cancer patient in violation of an advance directive or a health care proxy's wishes. Much like the absurd loyalty oath that New York's college professors--myself included--take to uphold the state's constitution, any pledge to support Catholic doctrine on medical matters is broadly viewed as a formality to be agreed to and then summarily ignored. Historically, the Church has looked the other way. Now, by challenging this longstanding system of benign neglect, bishops and grass roots zealots may believe they will achieve ideological purity. What they are actually doing is jeopardizing both the welfare of Catholic hospitals and the public health.

Some concrete thinkers may argue that since Catholic hospitals are "private" institutions, the Vatican can impose any rules that it wants. The claim belies the inherently public nature of the American hospital system. Catholic hospitals--like virtually all other hospitals in the Unites States--are only able to function as a result of a swath of government handouts and subsidies. Medicare and Medicaid pay the bills of almost half their patients. Federal funding supports the salaries of their medical residents. NIH Grants sponsor their research and clinical care. Many of the hospital buildings themselves were erected will federal construction dollars providing by the Hill-Burton Act of 1946. Private businesses may have a claim to considerable leeway in formulating their own rules and policies--although even "mom & pop" stores are reasonably prevented from excluding African-American customers and are often required to accommodate disabled shoppers. In theological matters, the Pope is certainly free to issue any decree he likes and those who wish to follow his dictates are entitled to do so. In contrast, Catholic hospitals function as public entities that serve people of all faiths and traditions. A patient in a medical emergency is taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital, not the nearest hospital that shares his social values. A system that operated otherwise would lead to logistical chaos and increased mortality. Once one accepts the premise that Catholic hospitals are public institutions, they have a moral obligation to comply with generally accepted standards of patient care and professional ethics. Today's hospitals are far more Caesar's than they are God's.

One of the greatest triumphs of modern health care in the United States is the rise of nonsectarian service. In an earlier era in New York City, for example, Jews sought care at Mount Sinai while Protestants preferred Presbyterian Hospital and Catholics chose St. Vincent's. Now, most patients--and all wise ones--choose their health care providers for clinical skills and personal attributes, not religious labels. As a result, the majority of patients at Catholic hospitals are not Catholic. To impose orthodox Catholic doctrine on these non-Catholic individuals at the most vulnerable moments of their lives would be the most significant Church intervention in the lives of non-adherents since the Inquisition. Doing so would also threaten the ability of physicians to practice at Catholic hospitals without violating their professional codes of ethics. In light of these developments, any patient currently receiving care in a Catholic-run hospital should immediately clarify with her doctor whether this physician will follow the patient's own end-of-life wishes regarding so-called heroic measures if they come into conflict with Directive 58.

The Catholic Church has every right to announce and publicize its views on certain medical interventions and to declare that Catholics who engage in certain conduct are violating the rules of the Church. It's the Pope's club. He can make the by-laws. He does not have any business imposing such rules on third parties who do not wish to follow them. It will be a sorry day if American patients seeking the best medical care are forced to avoid Catholic hospitals for fear of having their living wills ignored or their doctors' counsel dictated from Rome. The Church would be wise to focus its energies on theology and to leave the practice of medicine to the professionals.