Kim Callinan for Lansing State Journal: “Religious Freedom Day is January 16, a good time to consider end-of-life care”

February 21, 2023

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January 16 marks Religious Freedom Day. While people’s spiritual beliefs take on heightened meaning at the end of their life, religious freedom at this time is unfortunately an aspiration, not a reality. A Jan. 4 study in the Journal of American Medical Association, found that an overwhelming 71 percent of Americans believe personal decisions about their health should take priority over a healthcare facility’s religious values. Unfortunately, at life’s end, religious institutions often dictate care decisions regardless of the patient’s preferences.

This harsh reality is particularly true in Catholic health systems, which comprise nearly 80 percent of religious health systems, and whose Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) are among the most restrictive and vigorously enforced when it comes to end of life care. While many Catholic health systems provide excellent, compassionate care overall, at the end of life they force too many patients to endure care inconsistent with, and many times directly contradictory to, their own values.

In fact, the Catholic ERDs, which are enforced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, state that if a dying patient’s pain is uncontrollable, a doctor should help their patients “appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.” The ERDs also require that medically-assisted nutrition and hydration be provided to patients who can reasonably be expected to live indefinitely if given such care. This includes patients suffering from chronic and irreversible conditions, such as a “persistent vegetative state,” when a person is completely unresponsive and being kept alive by medical intervention only. In contrast, seven out of 10 Americans believe that end-of-life care should instead prioritize “helping people die without pain, discomfort or stress,” according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

While religious entities are allowed to impose their values on patients, they also receive millions of taxpayer dollars. Catholic hospitals and health systems receive nearly $48 billion dollars annually in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, according to a recent report by Community Catalyst. Unfortunately, given the reach and growth of Catholic health care, people often do not have other care options available. …

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