The Pro-Life Movement is Divided Over Bill to Reform End-of-Life Care

Last week, Texas Alliance for Life paused briefly in its crusade to enact increasingly onerous abortion restrictions and shifted its focus to the other end of the human lifespan. The group urged its supporters to lobby for passage of SB 303, state Senator Bob Deuell's bill to reform end-of-life care in Texas.

Currently, doctors are allowed to stop treatment on patients if they determine it's medically futile. If that decision conflicts with the wishes of the patient or their family, state law give them 10 days to find another provider and appeal the decision to a hospital ethics committee, according to the New York Times.

Deuell's proposal would tweak the process by extending the time frame for finding another provider to 14 days. It would also give patients and surrogates help accessing medical records and navigating the appeals process.

"There are times when medical treatment is inappropriate and death is inevitable," Deuell told the Times. Barring doctors or ethics committees from participating in the process could "let a family subject a loved one to a lot of truly unnecessary, perhaps painful and harmful treatment."

Texas Alliance for Life, along with pro-life allies in the Texas Catholic Conference and Christian Life Commission, sees the measure as a way to empower patients and their families. "Help families protect loved ones near the end of life," read one message in a week-long Facebook blitz. "You should know if a hospital plans to let your loved one die," read another.

But the issue has exposed a rift among anti-abortion groups. The National Right to Life Committee, one of the major national players in the pro-life movement, is sounding the alarm bells.

"This should scare a lot of people because what this bill says is that a doctor can impose a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order, write it into the patient's chart even over the patient's objection," Burke Balch, the director of the group's Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics, told the right-wing news site WND, which went with the headline "Surprise! Look Who's Getting Power to Kill You." Balch urged in another interview for "anyone who cares about patient autonomy or the right to live to shine the light of outraged public opinion on this dangerous bill."

The NRLC's objections are detailed in a four-page analysis of the bill. It strips patients and families of the right to make decisions about their own medical care, the group says. The appeals process is too limited. ("An inmate on death row has more appeals and due process than a patient before an ethics committee," John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, told the Times.) It "goes to extraordinary lengths to shield doctors and facilities who impose involuntary death on their patients." Et cetera.

The NRLC and its allies would prefer a bill that would keep doctors and ethics committees from making the final decision to end treatment. That's unlikely to happen, which is presumably why so many pro-life groups have thrown their support behind Deuell's more incremental proposal.

The bill passed the Senate last week. It's now pending in the House Public Health Committee.

Updated at 1:47 p.m.: The Texas Catholic Conference published a letter it sent to lawmakers accusing Texas Right to Life of cynically trying to "stoke fear through ridiculous claims."

It has been said that all is fair in love, war and Texas politics. However, the actions of Texas Right to Life have been so egregious and cynical, especially when comes to misrepresenting the moral and theological doctrine of the Catholic Church, that the TCC cannot stay silent.

Texas' Advance Directives Act needs reform. Current law lacks clarity given the complexity of end-of-life care, contains definitions that could permit the withdrawal of care for patients - including food and water - and permits unilateral Do Not Resuscitate Orders without the permission of, or even consultation with, the family.

Senate Bill 303 and House Bill 1444 are based on Catholic moral principles and reasonable medical standards for defending human life and protecting the conscience of both families and physicians. Both bills prevent unilateral DNRs, improve communication between medical providers and families, ensure a clear and balanced process for resolving differences, and give families the right to challenge Do Not Resuscitate Orders before a medical ethics committee.

In both its materials and communications with legislative offices and staff, Texas Right to Life has tried to stoke fear through ridiculous claims of nonexistent "death panels" and assertions that doctors are "secretly trying to kill patients." Both claims are absurd. The truth is, many factors are involved in the sausage-grinding process of public policymaking. Some have less to do with making good laws and more about individual personalities and fundraising opportunities of organizations.

It is outrageous that an organization purportedly committed to the rights and dignity of life would resort to such disingenuous tactics that deceive honest and caring people. What is worse is doing so in a way that perpetuates current law and may cause unnecessary patient suffering.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson