BEND — Once again the issue of health care in America has dominated the air waves.
It was also one of the topics discussed at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. While there is a diversity of opinion among the Bishops about what might be the best way to provide health care coverage for a greater percentage of people living in America, there is complete unanimity on what constitutes health care.
It is clear that abortion is not health care. Sterilization is not health care. In vitro fertilization is not health care. Emergency contraception in cases of rape might be health care provided it is not really a euphemism for emergency abortion. Embryonic stem cell research is not health care. Interestingly, providing medically assisted food and water is not, in a strict sense, health care. Even if done in a medical facility it falls more in the category of ordinary care than “medical treatment.” As I have noted in the past, the provision, in a medical facility, of such things as a warm room, a blanket or a bed is not “medical care,” it is ordinary care. The same is true of nutrition and hydration.
That “normal care” is always due to a sick person has consistently been affirmed by the Church, and as recently as 2007 the Church has reaffirmed that this normal care includes the provision of nutrition and hydration. One of the agenda items for our latest bishops’ meeting was a slight revision of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. This entailed a clarification of the kind of care which must be provided to a person in a persistent or permanent vegetative state (PVS).
There is no substantive difference between the two slightly different designations of persistent and permanent. When the word permanent is used, however, there seems to be a definitive conclusion that the person will not recover even nominal levels of consciousness. Such a conclusion may prove to be correct but such a condition is not definitively permanent until death is declared.
The shift from identifying a state as persistent to identifying the state as permanent is apparently made after approximately one year in the so-called “vegetative state.” Prior to that time, the condition is identified as persistent but it does not necessarily or actually become permanent even though its designation may change from persistent to permanent.
As a commentary on this issue provided by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points out in a footnote: “Terminology concerning the different phases and forms of the ‘vegetative state’ continues to be discussed, but this is not important for the moral judgment involved.” As I pointed out above, the terminology used to identify the condition does change over the passage of time but in actuality the condition, as long as it remains, can only be properly identified as persistent. Under either designation a human living being is still the subject of the care and that subject possesses the same human dignity and is thus worthy of the same human respect given to a person not so dramatically handicapped.
Another document approved at this meeting concerned itself with reproductive technologies. This document tries to respond to the abundance of confusion afflicts men and women of good will about what is acceptable and what is not in the field of fertility treatment. I have spoken before of the plight of frozen embryonic human beings who represent real human casualties of the immoral attempts to resolve the heartrending pain of infertility.
We can understand a willingness on the part of a couple to “do whatever it takes” to achieve the goal of having a child but such an unbridled desire may lead to a grave injustice done to innocent human beings, in the case of frozen embryos, or to a failure to do justice to the full human dignity of the child who is “produced.” If the child, in any way, is seen as the product of a technology as opposed to the fruit of a loving embrace between husband and wife then that dignity is disrespected because the child becomes a kind of commodity to which the parents claim to have some kind of self-determined “right.”
Again, the Church is very sensitive to the pain infertile couples experience but that compassion does not allow us to disregard the necessity of maintaining a very strict reverence for the right of a child to be conceived and brought to term within the context of the loving embrace of husband and wife, mother and father.
There is also an excellent document forthcoming on the beauty and excellence of marriage and on the need for the Church to catechize about and foster a deeper appreciation and respect for marriage. The challenges that face the Church today are of a sort no one could have envisioned 25 years ago. There has always been an awareness of the need to foster and protect marriages and families but at least the concept of marriage and the concept of family enjoyed an unquestioned definition. Now, in state after state, there is need to engage in a struggle to stop or overturn legislative, initiative and judicial actions aimed at redefining marriage. That redefinition is aimed at elevating homosexual unions to the same accepted status as heterosexual marital relationships and, oddly, it comes at a time when more and more heterosexual couples are opting for cohabitation in lieu of marriage. One could surmise that the corruption of the definition of marriage leads to confusion about the nature of marriage, a loss of respect for marriage and ultimately to a disregard for marriage.
I would not necessarily claim a causal relationship but marriage, as the Church understands it, is under attack. It is not possible to suffer such an attack on marriage and its definition without that attack detrimentally impinging upon marriages and the flesh and blood men and women for whom a proper understanding of marriage is necessary in order for them to perdure in their marital commitments. It is not possible to change the legal definition of marriage without negatively impacting all those who have entered marriage with a different and correct understanding and definition. Marriage and family are the basic building blocks of society and these foundational values must be defended.