Because of a high standard of living and access to good health care, many of us who spend our adulthood in the U.S. can, on average, expect to live well into our 80s and beyond. Once we have reached these “golden years”, medical complications may require a decision whether or not to undergo a surgery or use aggressive medical treatment. If not clearly spelled out in an advance health care directive (living will) signed by the patient, families are often left making this difficult decision on their own. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) that it needs to be determined whether the treatment suggested is proportional to the prospects for improvement and/or worth the risks, which are often greater for an elderly person. “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” (EV 68). Palliative care alone which seeks to make the patient more comfortable in the final stages of an illness is certainly morally permissible and may be preferred. Quality of life decisions in the final years are best made slowly and deliberately and in consultation with several doctors and caregivers.
Fr. James Chamberlain
Pastor of Saint Catherine of Siena Catholic Church