Health care ethics at end of life explored

MORTON — In a culture where aborting babies that have severe deformities and physician-assisted suicide are seen as moral responses to human suffering, Catholic medical professionals must offer compassionate and ethical alternatives.

That theme was repeated in a series of talks given at last Thursday’s annual Diocesan Health Care Ethics Day, where the focus was on end-of-life issues and Catholic medical ethics.

About 90 people — physicians, nurses, health care administrators, ethics staff members, chaplains and pastoral care workers — attended the all-day ethics seminar at Ashland House. Father Mark Merdian, pastor of St. Matthew’s Parish in Champaign and chairman of the Diocesan Health Care Committee, emceed the seminar.

“We can change the culture by how we live,” affirmed Father Merdian. “We are doing all of this in the name of Jesus Christ and to spread his healing love.”

The gathering opened with prayer and a talk by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, who reviewed legislative attempts in Illinois and nationally to abolish Catholic health care workers’ freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

Guest speakers that day were Dr. Thomas M. Pitre, who delivered two morning lectures titled, “Assisted Nutrition and Hydration in the Persistent Vegetative State” (published in the book, “Urged On By Christ”) and “Palliative Sedation at the End of Life;” and Dr. Byron C. Calhoun, who gave a two-part talk in the afternoon on perinatal hospice programs that care for families facing terminal abnormalities in an unborn child.

Dr. Pitre, a practicing urologist at the Northwest Urological Clinic in Portland, Ore., is past president of the Catholic Medical Association and a founding and active board member of Physicians for Compassionate Care, which was organized in response to the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon.

With a record of more than 20 years of pro-life activity, Dr. Calhoun is professor and vice chair in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the West Virginia University-Charleston, and the national medical advisor for the National Institute of Life Advocates.

In his first talk, Dr. Pitre examined clinical and ethical issues that arise when a patient has suffered brain damage that leaves them in a state of “intermittent wakefulness without detectable awareness.”

In his afternoon talks, Dr. Calhoun discussed the benefits of perinatal hospice, also presenting advice and practical steps for establishing a perinatal hospice program and for helping families cope with their grief.

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