Over 18? Start Thinking About Death

This is the final week of 2-part series on the sacredness of the human life. This week, we examine the importance of end-of-life care.

By: Sr. Clare Hunter, Director of the Respect Life Office

Imagine that you are in a serious car accident and rushed to the hospital. You are incapacitated and cannot tell medical professionals what to do, or not do, regarding your care. Accidents and life-threatening illnesses do not discriminate based on age or circumstance. No one is exempt from having an emergency healthcare need or making an end-of-life decision.  Every time you go to a hospital, clinic or even your doctor’s office, regardless of the procedure, you will be asked if you have an advance medical directive, healthcare agent — a person you choose in advance to make healthcare decisions for you in the event that you become unable to do so — or a living will. If you do not have one already, you are given one to fill out — prepared or not. Try as we might, we cannot escape suffering or death, but we can be prepared to deal with our healthcare needs and allow our loved ones to help us.

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An Advance Medical Directive (AMD) is an “umbrella term,” and is a witnessed, legal document that contains various sections:

  • The appointment of 1-3 healthcare agent (s)
  • The “living will” which makes known to your healthcare agents what type of healthcare you would or would not want if incapacitated and unable to express desired healthcare
  • The statement of your preferences regarding organ, tissue and eye donation, and the option to appoint an agent to make donation decisions on your behalf following your death.
  • The AMD is complete with the addition of your signature in the presence of two witnesses.

In 2010, the Diocese of Arlington and the Diocese of Richmond produced a Catholic Advance Medical Directive which includes the sections above, as well as the ability to request a visit from a priest and to be offered the sacraments. No matter how much we try to anticipate our healthcare needs and preferences, we know that in the moment of a physical crisis, many factors can change and unforeseen decisions must be made. The purpose of the AMD is to make those difficult healthcare decisions at the time of the physical need.

The Catholic Advance Medical Directive includes a glossary of terms as well as an accompanying booklet with common questions and answers. It elaborates on Catholic Church teachings, first and foremost on the sacredness of the human person and the imperative that all persons be treated with love and dignity.  It explains that all healthcare decisions are to be made in light of the fact “that Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God…. no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being “ (Donum Vitae, 5). Rooted in this truth and abiding by the Fifth Commandment – Thou Shalt Not Kill — all medical procedures must protect the life of the patient and allow for natural death.

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Of course, not all procedures must be performed and Catholic Church teaching is very clear that extraordinary or disproportionate means do not have to be administered if the measures do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit or they impose excessive burdens on the patient or family. Disproportionate or extraordinary means would be interventions or treatments that are likely to cause harm or undesirable side effects out of proportion to the benefit they might offer. The Church states that you or the person designated to make decisions for you may forgo disproportionate or extraordinary means of preserving life.

Copies of the Catholic Advance Medical Directive can be found at all parishes, as well as by contacting the Respect Life Office, at (703) 841-3817 or respectlife@arlingtondiocese.org. The document can also be downloaded here.

Making end-of-life decisions is never a black-and-white situation. Each body and circumstance is unique, as is each healthcare situation. Now, more than ever, we must fight against the culture of death, which looks to eliminate the person as a means of ending suffering. We must always remember that we are a body and soul unity, created to return to God by going to heaven. Our bodies are not something we own or merely appendages to endure, but are the reality of who we are. What we do with, and to, our bodies is integral to the holiness of our souls. We must strive to live a life that honors the unity of body and soul and treats the body as a sacred gift, to be offered to the Creator.

Special note: Under Virginia law, an Advance Medical Directive serves the same or a similar function as other documents called a “Durable Health Care Power of Attorney,” a “Health Care Proxy,” or a “Living Will.”[i] Also, be aware that even if you do not complete and sign an Advance Medical Directive form, if you are diagnosed with a terminal condition and your death is imminent, the Commonwealth of Virginia will accept an oral statement made by you to your physician regarding what treatment you do or do not want your physician to administer to you. At this time, though laws may vary, AMDs carry reciprocity for all states.

[i] Health Care Decision Act, Code of Virginia, § 54.1-2981.

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