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End Of Life Questions From Catholics Tackled At National Health Care Decisions Day Symposium


On National Health Care Decisions Day, the Integritas Institute for Ethics hosted a symposium to explore the ethical challenges that arise at the end of life. Roman Catholic physician Ely Wesley, a Vanderbilt University pulmonary and critical care specialist, warned fellow doctors at the University of Illinois-Chicago against the hastening of death, a process that he argued breaks both the laws of God and nature.

The physician told a room of medical professionals, graduate students and caregivers that his Catholic faith shapes his medical practice, and that the two are inextricably intertwined. “People in this room know people who are struggling with their faith and putting it into context,” he said. “I have no incentive to hasten death.”

During his lecture, Wesley made numerous references to scriptures, prayers and Catholic teaching about death and dying. “Physicians have an opportunity that a priest does not have, and our mission does not end when medicine is no longer of help,” Wesley said.

“Human life is sacred from its beginning to its end,” Wesley said, pointing to the teachings of Pope John Paul II. Even though death is not “an awful situation,” since it baptizes the faithful to Christ, he argued that hastening death removes the dignity of the ill and aged.

“How can we do a better job for our older people?” he asked, and decried secularism, ageism and the ongoing political debate about assisted suicide.

“Euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God,” Wesley said, referencing current battles in many states over “Death with Dignity” legislation. “If you’re not religious, then it violates natural law.”

What Wesley called the “double effect” is preferable, he said, for people of faith. “Double effect” is a terminal patient’s death due to excessive pain medication. This type of death is justifiable, Wesley argued, because it does not aim to end life- only to treat pain.

Image: The Pieta, Wikimedia Commons
Image: The Pieta, Wikimedia Commons

“It’s scary” that people can purchase ways out of life, he said, noting the rising use of the “exit hood,” a contraption that allows individuals to inhale helium and end their lives. The public support and national popularity of Dr. Kevorkian– a pathologist convicted of second-degree murder for his role in a case of voluntary euthanasia- is frightening also, Wesley argued.

Caring is an honor, Wesley said, referencing a Michelangelo sculpture depicting Christ’s broken body after his crucifixion in a peaceful Mary’s arms. “Look at Mary’s face in the Pieta.”