Hey, Father! Administering drugs to terminally ill patients at death – where does the Church stand?

What is the doctrine of the Catholic Church in regard to administering drugs to terminally ill patients at, or near end of life, to end suffering and pain? If one is designated with others as a Health Care Power of Attorney for a terminally ill person and allows a Hospice nurse to administer drugs such as morphine and muscle relaxers, are they guilty of helping with euthanasia? 

– Louise in Alton

A person who is caring for a terminally ill or an actively dying person or is their Health Care Power of Attorney may find himself in a situation where he or she is consulted by those treating their loved one about which treatments he or she might wish to receive or how to alleviate pain.   This can be a very intimidating role and two basic principles that are found within this question may appear to be at odds.

Firstly, we understand the dignity of every human life in every stage of its existence and can never morally act to end or shorten it. Secondly, we wish to help alleviate the pain and suffering of the person.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have assisted us in making such decisions in accord with our Catholic faith. Their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (Sixth Edition #62), helps us understand the validity of both of the principles here:

“Patients should be kept as free of pain as possible so that they may die comfortably and with dignity, and in the place where they wish to die. Since a person has the right to prepare for his or her death while fully conscious, he or she should not be deprived of consciousness without a compelling reason. Medicines capable of alleviating or suppressing pain may be given to a dying person, even if this therapy may indirectly shorten the person’s life so long as the intent is not to hasten death. Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.”

Great advances in what is called “palliative care,” such as Hospice, where we are caring for while unable to treat or heal a dying person, allow us to balance the dignity of life and address their pain. While we never actively intend to shorten life, a dying person’s pain can morally be managed so long as we are not intending to hasten their death. One could ask for the minimal amount of medication required to keep the patient comfortable. One is not engaging in euthanasia if one is attempting to alleviate pain with this intention in mind.

Father Peter Harman, who is holds a Doctorate in Moral Theology from the Catholic University of America and is rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome