Interview with Dr. George Isajiw, MD

Priests for Life

Publication Date: January 01, 1998

P: Dr. George Isajiw is a doctor, a medical doctor in internal medicine, and is a past president of the Catholic Medical Association. Doctor Isajiw, welcome.

G: Good to be here Father.

P: Good to have you. We met in Rome, and on other occasions, and I have looked forward for a long time for us to have an opportunity to talk about some of the things that you are doing. Some of the issues we face today in medical ethics. And particularly about the Catholic Medical Association. Can you tell us something about the Association? First of all, a little bit about its background, and how physicians could join up.

G: Well the Catholic Medical Association was several years ago known as the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds and it was a national organization. And it started around 1932 as local guilds, physicians in each diocese would get together and have groups, and then they came together for a national organization. We are also a member of an international organization, which is called the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations. And that’s headed in Rome, and we were there for that meeting. The Catholic Medical Association publishes a journal of medical ethics, the Linacre Quarterly, and this is one of the foremost medical journals in the field of medical ethics. And it is truth to the faith and it’s true to the magisterium of the church. And the most important thing about the Catholic Medical Association is that we are faithful to the Magisterium, and as you know today medicine we have some tremendous breakdown, anywhere from the issue of contraception to the issue of euthanasia, now withdrawing food and water and those kind of issues. That you have the general medical profession has gone down a path to an anti-life mentality or the culture of death. So now more than ever the Catholic Medical Association is needed to both resist this and to provide a forum and a refuge for those Catholic physicians who are being pressured to get involved in these unethical practices .

P: Together with the publication of this journal, what other activities does the Association carry out?

G: The major activity is organizing an annual meeting which is held in various places throughout the United States, and it depends on who the chairman is -- tries to go from east coast to west coast, usually in the fall, and this is a meeting where major medical moral issues are discussed. And scientific presentations are presented, and those proceedings are published. We also participate with the international meetings which are once every four years. And again that information is available to all physicians through the proceedings, it is called Decisions, Proceedings of the International Federation. So anyone who is interested should call our national office in Elm Grove, Wisconsin, and we can provide them with information. Also you can be a member of the organization independently or through a local organization. If you don’t have a local organization, you can just be directly be a member. It is called an associate member. It is primarily for physicians and dentists but associate members can be anyone just interested in healthcare, but of course nurses and anyone in the allied health professions and also join. As a matter of fact they do not have to pay as much dues as a physician , so it is easier.

P: It seems to me that the Catholic Medical Association does for physicians very much what we at Priests for Life are trying to do for clergy, mainly to encourage them in the face of these terrible tragedies that we deal with in the culture of death. To enable them to feel as if they were not alone as they step out and advance the culture of life. And in a particular way the vocation of the clergy and the vocation of the physician interact in very powerful ways, people look to both of these professions for guidance. They look to both as a source of authority, a source of comfort. What are your reflections as a catholic physician and as a past president of this organization on the dynamics of the relation between the role of the clergy and the role of the doctor?

G: That’s a very good point, because we see today this breaking down this unique relationship. The greatest proponent of that relationship was Dr. Herbert Ratner, who.. the late Dr. Ratner, was a convert from Judaism and he had a tremendous sense of the nature of the human person and he would teach us and I would learn so much from him, that there is a need, and each person has a need that involves three areas. And of course the eternity, the infinite which is in the realm of the clergy and the priest; health and freedom from pain and suffering which is in the realm of physician; and justice, freedom from injustice, freedom from being robbed and cheated and so forth, and that is law. And he said that these three professions serve the basic needs of man and in every society they have to exist in some form or another, and if they are all correct and they are based on the true perception of human nature, there should never be any conflict, there could not possibly be any conflict with the nature itself so to have a "religious coalition of abortion rights" is an oxymoron. To have a physician who would propose death instead of life.. that is an oxymoron, because the whole basis of the physicians existence is to promote the life of his patient and to protect the life of his patient. So today we see this breakdown where the physician will say, or is expected to say, "well if your religious beliefs allow you to commit suicide, then that’s not my issue, that’s o.k.." And likewise you know the clergy are saying, " Well if your personal beliefs allow you to accept abortion, you know I am going to stay away from that." And we can’t have that. We have to have a common purpose, and this kind of batting away to the other professions , saying I wash my hands of this, this is a religious problem, or this is a medical problem, and the other side is promoting the culture of death again. And we have to get together and reexamine how much more we can work together for the benefit of the patient.

P: As I learned in the seminary, good medicine is based on good morals. And good morals on good medicine. As a medical doctor, it can obviously no matter what a persons religious beliefs are, medical facts are medical facts.

G: Exactly.

P: And as a medical doctor and you address for us for a few moments, the on going point of assertion whether explicit or implicit that is brought forward in articles and in legislatures or in media, the assertion that sometimes abortion is necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother. Is that ever true?

G: Actually it’s not. There is no such thing as an abortion to save the life of the mother. As a matter of fact for a while.. several years.. I was very interested in that question in my formative years and I would ask every obstetrician and gynecologist that I met anywhere. And I said have you ever had a case where you had to do something to kill the baby to save the life of the mother. I have not come across one case, you know. People think of in the movie, the story the Cardinal, where the woman was delivering the child and got into complications and they crushed the baby’s head. And that is just not a part of modern medicine. That is not necessary to be done.

Where the confusion arises is the so-called indirect abortion. Or those cases where both mother and child are dying because of a situation, there are really only three situations like this that I can think of and that’s ectopic pregnancy, cancer of the uterus, and perhaps trauma, or an accidental traumatic injury to the uterus. And if you don’t do anything then both mother and child will die. Now if you treat the mother for whatever needs to be treated, the uterus is bleeding, and you remove the uterus and the baby is still in there, and you do nothing to kill the baby, that is if you had a means an artificial incubator, some day we will have it, I’m sure, you could put that baby in there, so in no way do you directly attack the life of the baby. But you can foresee that that baby will lose its life, but it will lose its life anyhow but without directly attacking. Those are the three instances, very rare, very rare, but those are not abortions. If you look at the five ways that abortions are done, which is the only purpose is to kill the child, none of these techniques are the methods used in these operations. So there is no such thing as an abortion necessary.

And you don’t need a law, you don’t need an exception because for ages that treatment of ectopic pregnancy, once the mother starts bleeding or has life-threatening complications, the treatment of cancer of the uterus, that has been always permissible without …having to legalize abortion. So the answer is simply no. There is no such thing as an abortion to save the life of the mother, sometimes early delivery, sometimes it is so early that the baby has a great risk of dying perhaps, but the baby is delivered, the baby is placed into intensive care, is given all the possible support, and may or may make it, but there is no such thing as an abortion to do that.

P: This is of such an important point because, for example, what you just mentioned, there are cases were a pregnancy may need to be ended early in order to assist the mother in some form of complication. Big difference, isn’t there between killing that baby and making every effort to preserve the life of that baby.

G: Exactly.

P: And this distinction just seems to mean to get lost in so many of the arguments of those who are trying to promote abortion. In the controversy over partial birth abortion particularly, this insistence that we need to leave this open for the cases of the health of the mother has arisen, and there has been quite a response to that hasn’t there been even in the medical profession.

G: And even the abortionists themselves absolutely admit there is no medical indication for partial-birth abortion. You know that has become such a politicized issue but that is very clear cut ... this is at an age where the baby clearly can be saved. You know we are talking about these indirect abortions if you want to use that term where you know that the baby will lose his or her life because of the early delivery. That is a very young baby that can not survive outside the body of the mother. However, when the baby is 8 months, 7 months, 8 months , 9 months, you can always do something to save the baby. It is never, never necessary to do anything to kill that child for the mother’s sake.

P: I have always thought it, and I am interested in your comments on this as well, of the difference between abortions and other surgical interventions. One of the big differences is this, that the surgical intervention is meant to help the body to do something that it is trying to do anyway. For example if there is a blocked artery the blood is if you will trying to flow there. Is not able to, so you assist it by clearing the blockage. Whereas in abortion it seems to me exactly the opposite is being done. The body is not trying to kill the child. The body is doing everything possible to nourish and protect and let that child grow. There must be serious consequences to intervening in a way that is so radically goes against everything that the body is trying to do at that moment. What are your thoughts on that?

G: Well, you are absolutely correct. We know of all of the harmful effects of abortion, not only of course on the child, but on the mother. Beyond the physical harm, we now know the post-abortion syndrome which may show up many, many years later. It is sort of equivalent of some of the soldier syndromes which may have been involved in killing and war and so forth. Whatever the euphemisms are the mother herself subconsciously years later, and I have had a women aged 77, who confessed to me had tremendous psychological problems because she had had an abortion at age 20, and she felt responsible for the death of that baby. So you have that nature itself, the nurturing nature of motherhood that wants that baby, to do the best thing for that child. And when that women is aborted she is hurt permanently and she lives with the memory of a dead baby for the rest of her life. And this is difficult enough in a miscarriage, or losing a baby through pre-mature birth, but at least there you can it is God’s will, that’s what happened, we can’t understand mystery of how, why the Lord allows certain things to happen, suffering and death. But to have the idea that I am responsible for it, I made the choice, I made the decision, and this is where the women have such a hard time forgiving themselves, and that is the whole basis of that post-abortion stress syndrome.

P: Well certainly one of the best forces is this effort to encourage physicians to know and to do what is right. And I am very grateful to you for the work you have done with the Catholic Medical Association, the work you continue to do and we will do everything possible at Priests for Life to continue to promote this association as well. So thank you for joining us, and God Bless you in your work.

G: And thank you Father. I appreciate being here and I ask you for your prayers. Thank you.

P: Thank you.

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