04 Jan 2018

Catholic Church “conscientiously objects” to dignified death

Last December, Italy took an important step towards facilitating dignified death -- it allowed citizens to write a living will. However, the Catholic Church is doing all it can to hinder it under the label of conscientious objection.

Cinzia Sciuto
Cinzia Sciuto MicroMega, Italy
Source: MicroMega
Church “conscientiously objects” to dignified death - NewsMavens
Hospital bed. Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

politics, human rights, gender

At last, Italy took a step towards facilitating dignified death when, in December 2017, the senate passed the law on the living will. T

Most importantly, the new law introduces the so-called "advance dispositions of treatment" (DAT), a declaration through which a person can "express her/his preferences in the field of health care, as well as consent or refusal regarding diagnostic or therapeutic choices and individual health treatments, including artificial nutrition and hydration practices".

It is not a perfect law -- above all because it fails to include the possibility of euthanasia -- but nonetheless a step in the right direction. According to it, neither the state nor the Church have authority over people’s bodies but each of us individually.

What also seems crucial in the new legislation is the explicit mention that even "artificial nutrition and hydration" can be rejected.

One of the most controversial cases in Italy over the past years was that of Eluana Englaro, a girl who had remained in a vegetative state for many years following a road accident. All legal attempts of her family to interrupt the treatment clashed with the principle that "you cannot let someone die of hunger or thirst" -- a slogan flaunted by the opponents of the self-determination of people.

Obviously Eluana could not die "of hunger or thirst" as she was unable to experience either of the sensations. She was kept alive by the doctors so interrupting her treatment would only allow the natural process of death -- artificially stopped years before -- to resume its course.

When the new regulation was passed, the opponents of the living will -- led by the Catholic Church --immediately wrote to the President of the Republic claiming that the law failed to mention the possibility of conscientious objection. The Minister of Health, Beatrice Lorenzin, who is openly Catholic, hurried to "reassure" the Church that even if the option has been left out from the bill, conscientious objection will be guaranteed.

Let’s stop for a few seconds to ponder what “conscientious objection” means in this case. It is the refusal to follow the patient's wishes. It means subjecting him to health treatments against his explicit will.

Hence, it seems obvious that, in this case, the appeal to conscientious objection is purely instrumental.

The Church has long exploited this concept to hinder the application of another fundamental civil right -- the law 194 regulating voluntary termination of pregnancy. Unlike the legislation on living will, the abortion bill explicitly states that a doctor (but not an entire hospital) can refuse to conduct abortion if it conflicts with his conscience. This triggers two major difficulties.

First of all, the percentage of cases, in which conscientious objection is claimed, is so high in Italy (up to 90% in certain regions) that in some areas of the country it is practically impossible to have an abortion -- a serious violation of a fundamental right of women.

Secondly, conscientious objection is morally justified when directed against a legal obligation. For example, if a pacifist refuses to join the military on the grounds of conscientious objection, it does not conflict with the rights of anybody else and causes significant negative consequences only to himself. In the case of abortion, no one is obliged to be a gynecologist and no gynecologist is obliged to work in public facilities.

Hence, in this case -- just like with the law on living will -- conscientious objection is only a way to impose ones moral vision on others.

The legislation on the living will, along with that on civil unions, which has finally opened the path to the equality of homosexual couples, are two flagship initiatives of this parliament. On December 27, the President of the Republic announced the end of the parliament’s term of office, and, on March 4, we will choose a new parliament. Hopefully one that can stand up to the omnipotent Church. 

Details from the story:

  • Last December, the law on the living will was passed in Italy.
  • By establishing a declaration on the "advance treatment provisions" (DAT), the law guarantees that each individual can "express their beliefs and preferences regarding health care, as well as consent or refusal with respect to diagnostic choices or treatment and individual health treatments, including artificial nutrition and hydration practices".
  • The Catholic Church has already voiced its opposition, demanding that conscientious objection be introduced, a request supported by the Health Minister, Beatrice Lorenzin.
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