Questions of Life and Death in Austin

A tragic story continues to unfold in Austin, Texas, where 17 month old Emilio Gonzales is the center of a dispute over “extraordinary measures.”

The “ethics committee” of the Catholic hospital says he should be removed from life support.

His mother, Catarina Gonzales, pleads for his life. And she can’t understand why the Bishop of Austin, the Most Rev. Gregory Aymond, is siding with the hospital.

I know and respect Bishop Aymond. His statement acknowledges the pain of the situation and the difficulty of determining what is right and wrong in such cases. He says,

The decision to forego extraordinary medical care must be made by the patient or the patient’s proxy with a great deal of prayer and consultation with ethicists, spiritual mentors and health care professionals.

He notes,

Numerous physicians have stated that Emilio’s condition is irreversible and will result in his death. There is also great concern that continued extraordinary treatment will only result in greater pain for Emilio, without curing or improving the condition from which he suffers. Based on this information and a review of the case by ethicists, moving to a “comfort care” plan for Emilio would be morally acceptable. Emilio would continue to receive food, water, pain medication and other “ordinary” treatment to provide as much comfort as can be given by a loving and vigilant team. Some have compared Emilio’s situation to Terri Schiavo’s. They are very different; in the Schiavo case ordinary means — food and water — were withdrawn, which caused her death.

Having discussed some of the philosophical and ethical issues, he concludes,

Our first concern must be the well-being of Emilio, both physically and spiritually, and that appropriate pastoral and spiritual care is offered to his family, especially his mother, during this very difficult time. I have offered to meet with Catarina Gonzales to offer my support and to explain the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding end of life issues. I ask everyone to join me in praying for Emilio, his mother Catarina and those who are responsible for his care.

Let me reiterate my respect and admiration for Bishop Aymond. I have not discussed this with him, but if I were to do so, I’d raise a couple of points. I think something very important gets lost in his discussion–he mentions it, but doesn’t reflect upon what it means:

The decision to forego extraordinary medical care must be made by the patient or the patient’s proxy ….

The decision here must be the mother’s. Yes, she should consult with all the folks he suggests. But it is her decision.

What I’d like to see an affirmation of is the right of a parent to make the decisions for their child–a right that is fundamental, a right that cannot and must not be assumed by any group of philosophers or ethicists or hospital bureaucrats or legal officials or religious officials, except when the parent is causing objective harm to the child.

That is not happening here. The mother wants to do all that is possible for her son. I would have preferred to hear her pastor standing up for her right to make this decision. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind the offer of an explanation of the church’s teaching–but I would hope that that catechetical lesson would include a lesson on the inalienable rights of parents. And then I would hope to see her pastor standing by her and supporting the decision she would choose to make.