National Catholic Register


Cardinal Blasts Partial-Birth Abortion at Medical Congress

'Brain death' debate also sparks meeting of 400+ physicians

BY Brian Caulfield

September 20-26, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/20/98 at 1:00 PM


NEW YORK—Speaking with thunderous emotion at an international conference of Catholic health professionals in New York City, John Cardinal O'Connor commended those who have spoken out in moral terms against President Clinton's admitted sexual misconduct and asked why there was no comparable moral outrage when Clinton vetoed legislation outlawing partial-birth abortion, which the cardinal called “a horror far beyond others.”

Much eloquent speech has been devoted to the president's situation in this country and abroad, the cardinal stated, “but where was the country, where was the world, when the president of the United States vetoed the bill passed by the Congress of the United States banning partial-birth abortion?”

He said that last week he sent a letter to Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat who spoke from the Senate floor denouncing in strictly moral terms the president's misconduct, and who set the stage for other congressmen to do likewise. In the letter, the cardinal said, he told the senator that he “shared the popular applause over his courage to speak about the morality of the situation and not merely the politics of the situation, and I said for that reason — I cannot begin to understand how you can speak in such wonderful moral terms and yet vote as you have voted to support partial-birth abortion, which in my judgment is as heinous an offense against human life as our civilization has ever seen.”

The cardinal said he was not speaking in political terms and called Lieberman an outstanding man in some other respects. His comments were given more force, however, by the fact that the Senate is scheduled this month to vote on an override of Clinton's veto of the partial-birth bill. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, has been the target of an intensive campaign among pro-life Jews and Christians seeking to change his vote from last year in the Senate's failed effort to override the veto. The House of Representatives voted to override the veto last June, and a positive Senate outcome would bring the bill into law.

It was the first time Cardinal O'Connor had spoken publicly about the scandal surrounding Clinton, and his statement came a day after special prosecutor Kenneth Starr delivered his report to Congress outlining 11 possibly impeachable offenses by the president.

In his weekly column earlier this month in New York Archdiocese's newspaper, Catholic New York, the cardinal said that he did not need to make a statement on the president's situation because no faithful Catholic could be in doubt as to his thinking on the matter and he did not see how speaking out would stem the spread of public scandal or advance the salvation of souls.

The cardinal was a keynote speaker Sept. 11 at the meeting of health workers which marked the 19th World Congress of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC) and the 67th annual meeting of the Catholic Medical Association USA (CMA). The conference, with more than 400 Catholic physicians and other health professionals from some 20 countries, was held at the Sheraton New York Hotel in Manhattan, Sept. 10-13. The theme was “Medical Ethics in the Third Millennium: Christ's Healing Love Through the Gospel of Life.”

Other keynote speakers included Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, professor of medicine and medical ethics at the Center for Clinical Bioethics, Georgetown University, who gave the Jerome Lejeune Memorial Lecture on the doctor-patient relationship in the light of Christian ethics; Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR, director of the Center of Spiritual Development in New York, who spoke on devotion to Christ the Physician (“Christus Medicus”); and Father Stanley Jaki, a physicist and professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, who reported on the conditions surrounding two spontaneous healings at Lourdes witnessed at the beginning of this century by a Nobel Science Award winner. The laureate, Alexis Carrell, was a religious skeptic at the time and spent the rest of his life searching out the causes of the healings before being reconciled to the Church on his deathbed in 1944, Father Jaki stated.

Raising the greatest debate was a talk on the issue of brain death and its relation to organ transplants. Dr. Paul Byrne, the outgoing president of the Catholic Medical Association, said that brain death, in which a person has no discernible brain waves, is not death at all. It is a non-medical term that was created to justify the removal of living organs for transplantation, said Byrne, a neonatologist from Toledo, Ohio. The brain-dead patient is actually killed by the removal of vital organs which cannot survive intact for many minutes after actual death, he added.

His assertions received hearty support and strong objections from various participants. The Church has not ruled definitively on the issue of brain death, and a number Catholic physicians accept brain death as true death, Dr. Richard Watson, newly elected president of CMA, told the Register.

Byrne argued that the Church has always defined death as the separation of the soul from the body, and a brain dead patient may still be “animated” in many ways, with a beating heart, discernible blood pressure, self-sustaining body temperature and regular urination. Pregnant women declared brain dead have been kept alive until they have delivered their babies, he stated.

“I had to fight my way onto the list of speakers here because many people do not want me to give this message,” Byrne said to the Register. “People are being lied to about this reality but the lie will not prevail.”

Cardinal O'Connor also read a letter of commendation from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, who thanked the conference for seeking more and better ways to assure that medicine serves to heal and not to harm and to promote the common good in conformity with the natural and divine laws.

Among the documents accepted by the conference was an “Oath of Hippocrates,” drafted by the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston, which retains the traditional prohibition against abortion and euthanasia.

Also approved was the “Promise of a Catholic Doctor” outlining eight items of ethical behavior, including to defend human life from conception to natural death, to serve the public health and donate time for care of poor people, and to cooperate with public health policies except when they violate human goods and life.

The conference's final resolution stated allegiance to the Church's Magisterium — “an ageless light, shining all the more brightly in the darkness of modern-day secular humanism” — with particular mention of the teachings found in Evangelium Vitae, Donum Vitae (the 1988 document on biotechnologies), and Humanae Vitae. The Catholic physician is called to be an alter Christus (another Christ), the resolution stated, who is “challenged to realize in touching and healing the wounds — both physical and psychological — of each patient we treat, that we are privileged to touch and heal the very wounds of Christ our Lord.”

The conference focused as much on the spiritual as the medical. Daily proceedings included Mass, parts of the Divine Office of the Church, and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, which was exposed for 50 consecutive hours during the conference in a hotel room on the 34th floor. Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of the Military Archdiocese was the conference's episcopal adviser and celebrated the closing Sunday Mass for the gathering at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

“Most significant is that so many Catholic health professionals from so many countries have gotten together to pray, to share their faith, and to reinvigorate one another in fulfilling our religious and professional obligations,” said CMA President Watson. He, his wife Leonie (also a medical doctor), and one of their eight children, Peter Damien, who has Down syndrome, brought up the gifts at the concluding Mass.

A urologist practicing in New Jersey, Watson said that a host of ethical dangers having to do with genetic manipulation, euthanasia, and abortifacients face medical professionals today and the dangers will become more pronounced and numerous in times to come. The conference sought to address the major issues and forge a comprehensive response that takes into consideration the positive elements of scientific progress while pointing out the ethical problems many new technologies present.

“I think groups of our type get a bad image of wanting to halt all progress according to some outdated medieval model of medicine,” said Dr. Watson. “What we are affirming is an integrated, wholesome, life-affirming approach to all medical issues, so that the dignity of the human person is recognized as central to all that we do as doctors.”

In his keynote speech, Dr. Pellegrino, recent recipient of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal, said that the diverging views of Christian and secular bioethics were causing a crisis in the doctor-patient relationship. Doctors lacking a religious grounding no longer recognize their primary obligation as healer and make medical judgments increasingly on the basis of “quality of life” seen from a materialistic viewpoint. He urged the promotion of a Christ-centered view in which the physician and the patient are two parts cooperating in the larger Body of Christ.

Father Groeschel said that the image of Christ the Physician was the earliest private devotion in the Church, dating to the second century. St. Augustine made reference to “Christus Medicus” 40 times in his homilies, speaking of Christ as healing man's greatest illness — pride. Devotions to the Sacred Heart, the Good Shepherd, and the Divine Mercy are modern forms of the same devotion, he stated.

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.