Catholic health care ethics topic of seminar

BRIGHTON —The guiding principles and complexities of Catholic health care ethics and the inner workings of ethics debate were laid bare in the annual seminar on Catholic health care ethics, sponsored by The National Catholic Bioethics Center. Held Aug. 8–10 at Caritas St. Elizabeth Medical Center, the seminar, “Ethical Decision Making in Catholic Health Care: Guidance for the Perplexed,” attracted deacons, priests, sisters, seminarians, medical students and physicians, pharmacists, and others interested in health care from across the U.S. and around the world including Nigeria, Poland, Ireland, and Italy.

The seminar began on Friday, Aug. 8 with Mass. The first presentation was given by president of the NCBC, John Haas, Ph.D., S.T.L., titled “Ethical Decision Making: What Is the Role of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services?” (ERDs). Haas spoke on the history of the ERDs, which can be traced back to 1913, and the prominence of Catholic health care. As an example, he stated that Catholic health care in Tulsa, Okla. (with a Catholic population of one to two percent), provides 80 percent of the acute medical care for the area. Haas also addressed the use of euphemisms in health care ethics today, such as calling abortion “termination of pregnancy.” One would not need euphemisms if one were doing something one felt right about, he said.

"This is a sign that the moral law is written in our hearts," he said, and it is a sign of hope. Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, Haas said "God is offended by us only when we act against our own good."

Father Germain Kopaczynski, OFM Conv., Ph.D., S.T.D., the center’s director of education, followed with a talk on how to approach perplexing problems in health care ethics. The main principles of Catholic health care ethics, he said, are human dignity, the sanctity of life, “the principle of double effect,” “the principle of totality,” and “informed consent,” among others. In order to approach these problems, one must “fight for words” by seeking to clarify terms used to describe procedures. One example in the fight for words is that “somatic cell nuclear transfer” is really “cloning.”

Edward Furton, Ph.D., NCBC director of publications, spoke on the ethical issues surrounding vaccines, saying that it is important for parents to vaccinate their children.

On Friday afternoon, Lorna Cvetkovich, M.D., spoke on pre-natal complications from a medical perspective. She said that there are virtually no situations today in which an abortion must be performed in order to save the life of the mother. The true reasons for such abortions are fear, ignorance, and medical legal liability.

Peter Cataldo, Ph.D., director of research, followed up with the moral perspective on pre-natal complications. “The embryo is a person,” he said, “an intrinsically unified individual being.”

The seminar participants got a taste of the health care ethics debate that goes on among ethicists in the open forum at the end of the first day. Participants’ questions were answered and the more complex ones were debated by the day’s presenters. Where the magisterium has not made a definitive judgment, disagreement and debate do arise.

Haas opened the Saturday sessions speaking about contraception, sterilization and Natural Family Planning. Animals obey the laws of nature, he said, humans obey the natural law, which St. Thomas Aquinas defined as “the rational creature’s conscious participation in the eternal law.” Reasonable human behavior is to act on behalf of ends. In marriage, these ends, or purposes, are the unity of the couple and the procreation of children. Cvetkovich added that Natural Family Planning is marriage enhancing and adds to women’s self-respect.

Gerald Corcoran, M.D., spoke on “The Impact of HIPAA on the Professional-Patient Relationship: Sorting Out Fact from Fiction.” The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 places restrictions on what information the health care professionals or institutions may give out and to whom. Also, the patient should learn more about whom they are giving permission to and to whom they should give permission to see records.

Father Albert Moraczewski, OP, Ph.D., S.T.M., founding president of the NCBC, spoke on the legitimate reach of technology and the immorality of human cloning and human embryonic stem cell research in a talk entitled “Living by Your Principles: The Case of Genes, Cloning, and Stem Cells.”

In the afternoon, Father Kopaczynski discussed “Some End of Life Cases in the News” and Furton spoke on organ transplants and brain death. There are two different criteria by which death may be determined with moral certainty: neurological criteria (“brain death”) and the stopping of the heart, Furton said. Either one, by itself, is morally acceptable. As both Pope John Paul II and Pope Pius XII have said, the determination of death resides in the hands of the medical experts and does not fall under the expertise of the Church. Furton added that organ donation, while not required, is a heroic act.

Saturday concluded with another open forum and a Mass.

On the conference’s final day, Father Moraczewski, Cataldo, and Ovide Lamontagne, J.D., all spoke on the topic of cooperation. Speaking on institutional cooperation, Cataldo pointed out that there is “no value-neutral health care.” Health care is “always provided according to a particular vision of what is good for the patient as a human person.” When a Catholic institution is looking into cooperating with another institution, the vision of health care of each must be examined and potential conflicts identified. Those conflicts, such as abortion and sterilization, must not be promoted or facilitated by the Catholic party to the agreement. Lamontagne pointed out the areas in institutional cooperation in which such conflicts can arise, including the type of ownership the institution will have, such as the governance relationship and management styles, and the contracting relationships. All these areas must be examined in order to avoid conflicts of vision and to preserve Catholic values. The day concluded with another open forum.