by Maureen Kramlich
August 3, 2001
Each year in the United States, over a million lives are taken on gurneys. The place where weak and defenseless human lives are supposed to be nurtured, comforted and healed has become a site for deaths. This is done in a cold and calculated manner with the assistance of the medical profession in abortions, executions and, most recently, physician-assisted suicides in Oregon.
Consider the words of a young poet recounting her abortion experience:And the words of the recently retired senior warden at Huntsville Prison in Texas, describing the execution of Joseph Cannon, the first execution over which he presided:
Another nurse appeared in another doorway and told me to follow her. She brought me into a tiny room with big bright lights and a steel gurney in it... another nurse walked in and began to rattle off instructions: Sit down on the table, slide down to the end, lie back....The doctor entered and introduced himself....My legs were strapped into stirrups. That was the last thing I remember...before waking up in the recovery area. I was surrounded by women, perhaps twenty of them. They were in hospital beds like mine, in robes like mine. I thought that yesterday we all were pregnant, today not one of us is. Today, not a single baby among us. (Asha Bandele, The Prisoner's Wife, 1999, 183-184)
I watched as the tie-down crew secured Cannon in his straps on the gurney. Watched as the IV was inserted after a struggle to find a good vein. Listened as he made his last statement. Then, the IV fell out. The chaplain and I closed the curtains. The witnesses were taken away. Eventually, the IV was reinserted and we started again. I took off my glasses. That was the signal to the hidden executioner to start the flow of the three fluids, one to put him to sleep, one to collapse his lungs and diaphragm, one to stop his heart. I waited three minutes before asking the doctor to make his pronouncement. Then I went home to my family. (Jim Willet, "Eighty-Nine Executions," Washington Post, Sunday May, 13, 2001, page B01).In some respects, it is the profession itself which has medicalized these deaths. Some physicians have rather willingly promoted and participated in abortions and assisted suicides, and physicians are increasingly involved in executions. But once such policies are put in place, physicians are cajoled and even pressured to participate in killing. In Oregon for example, a state which legalized physician-assisted suicide in 1994, The Oregonian reports on one physician's resistance and then acquiescence in an assisted-suicide: "Another doctor initially turned down a patient, but the patient persuaded the doctor that it was his responsibility to help. The doctor complied" (Erin Hoover Barnett, "Assisted Suicides Hold Steady," The Oregonian, February 22, 2001 at http://www.oregonlive.com/special/assisted_suicide/ index.ssf? /news/oregonian/01/02/
lc_52pas22.frame). The laws of twenty-seven states require physicians to attend executions. (The American College of Physicians, Breach of Trust: Physician Participation in Executions in the United States, 1994, page 35). For physicians employed in prison health care in these states, there can be enormous pressure to participate in executions. In one case, a prison physician was coerced to remove a conscience clause from his employment contract on the oral promise of the director of corrections. Later, the physician resigned when prison officials came to regard him as solely accountable to the institution and not to his prisoner-patients. (Ibid. at 27).
Some might say that a physician who does not want to be involved in executions should not seek employment in a prison that carries out death sentences. This is the same kind of logic used by the abortion rights movement in arguing for widespread availability of abortion. Abortion, they say, is basic "reproductive healthcare" that all ob/gyns and all hospitals should provide. Organizations such as MergerWatch have been monitoring mergers between Catholic and secular hospitals for the availability of abortion, and denouncing Catholic hospitals when they invoke their right of conscience not to perform abortions. Planned Parenthood's Gloria Feldt called a doctor's or hospital's refusal to provide abortion "unethical medical care" and conscience a "sugarcoated name" for "interference . . . in your own personal medical decisions." (Speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, October 19, 1999).
Legislative efforts to erode the conscience rights of Catholic hospitals and physicians who object to providing abortion have been launched across the country. Bills have been introduced in state legislatures that mandate contraceptive coverage in all health plans, including plans purchased by Catholic employers, and that require the provision of so-called "emergency contraception" (which can cause an abortion) in hospital emergency rooms, including Catholic hospital emergency rooms. These efforts are first steps in establishing the premise that some contraception and abortion are basic health care services to which no hospital or physician can object.
Will we soon face a situation where doctors who want to treat terminally ill patients will be required by law to participate in their patients' deaths? At a minimum, broad conscience protection is urgently needed to thwart the efforts of those who think killing is just another treatment option.
Maureen Kramlich is a public policy analyst for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.