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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter NovecoskyGuidelines for dying

With the advances in technology, it’s becoming harder to decide when it’s best to terminate treatment for someone who is dying. The recent case of Alfie Evans, who died April 28, is a case in point.

Alfie was 23 months old. He suffered from an incurable degenerative neurological condition. Doctors in Liverpool, England, judged that it was in the “best interests” of Alfie to be allowed to die. The case was taken to the courts, to settle a dispute between the parents and the doctors. British judges decided that nothing could be done to save Alfie.

Alfie’s parents, Tom and Kate, were young — 19 and 18 years of age, respectively — when Alfie was born on May 9, 2016.

They were assisted in their struggle by a small group of people outside Britain, according to Robert Mickens, writing in La Croix International. In an article entitled, “The ‘pro life’ zealots who manipulated the end-of-life tragedy of a British toddler,” Mickens reported that the zealots entered the young couple’s lives several months ago, uninvited and entirely on their own initiative.

“These people befriended Tom and Kate and ended up playing a key role in advising the young couple’s course of action and, especially, in helping to make Alfie’s saga known throughout the world.”

He commented, “These outside forces actually exploited this young family to advance their own politically motivated agendas. They accused the doctors of one of the world’s finest pediatric hospitals as being cruel and deceptive. They pilloried England’s Catholic bishops for acting like Pontius Pilate. They called for the sacking of Pope Francis’ handpicked president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. And they even chastised Britain’s Royal Family for not ‘saving’ Alfie, while branding the United Kingdom a police state and dictatorship.”

The parents appealed to Pope Francis, who met Alfie’s father. The Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome offered to care for Alfie, although the doctors who examined him said not much could be done; they could only make him comfortable. On April 23, the Italian government granted citizenship to the boy so he could be evacuated by a waiting air ambulance helicopter.

The affair attracted worldwide attention as church leaders were accused of being unfaithful to church teaching. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales defended the actions of the hospital.

American National Right to Life president Carol Tobias, for example, said in an April 29 statement that “no parent should ever be forced to the sidelines while the government decides whether their child will receive medical treatment or not.”

She said: “Let’s be clear: Alfie Evans was sentenced to death by Britain’s National Health System (Service) and the High Court. Their intransigent commitment to the country’s faulty single-payer health system led them to conclude it was better for Alfie to die than leave the country and receive potentially life-saving treatment elsewhere.”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, London, said he believes everything possible was done to help Alfie, and criticized those who “sought political capital” from the tragedy “without knowing the facts.”

Some decades ago, the church distinguished between ordinary and extraordinary treatment to help medical staff and families decide when a person could be allowed to die a natural death instead of being kept artificially alive for days or weeks. It is not easy for family and friends to watch a loved one die. But it is a fact of life.

The issue of euthanasia and the recent focus on assisted suicide serve only to confuse the issue today.

Church teaching was spelled out by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (No. 65).

“For a correct moral judgment on euthanasia, in the first place a clear definition is required. Euthanasia in the strict sense is understood to be an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering. ‘Euthanasia’s terms of reference, therefore, are to be found in the intention of the will and in the methods used.’

“Euthanasia must be distinguished from the decision to forego so-called ‘aggressive medical treatment,’ in other words, medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his family. In such situations, when death is clearly imminent and inevitable, one can in conscience ‘refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted.’ Certainly there is a moral obligation to care for oneself and to allow oneself to be cared for, but this duty must take account of concrete circumstances. It needs to be determined whether the means of treatment available are objectively proportionate to the prospects for improvement. To forego extraordinary or disproportionate means is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia; it rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death.”

Mickens commented: the Alfie affair “has been a sad and heart-wrenching saga. And it has been marked by a blistering degree of bitterness and divisiveness stoked by certain journalists who have shown not an ounce of shame for deliberately peddling falsehoods as if they were facts. They have worked as tools and fellow activists of the people who became self-appointed advisors to Alfie’s parents.”

Death is rarely an invited guest, especially for a young family; emotions run high and facts are difficult to accept.

We trust the Prairie Messenger has helped our readers navigate their way through the difficult decisions they face in our increasingly complex world. The Alfie affair may be an example where we need some clarity and background to understand what is happening, and why.

We urge our readers to keep a vigilant and critical attitude in all they read, whether it’s fit or unfit to print!