National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Vegetables grow in gardens, not beds

BY Barb Ernster

September 19-25, 2004 Issue | Posted 9/19/04 at 12:00 PM



Mike Gross found himself in a ticklish position. As conservator and guardian of a 76-year-old Alzheimer's patient, he'd been asked before to make decisions about the woman's health-care needs.

But this was different. The client was in the hospital and would not eat. One of the options, an attending physician told Gross, was to “just let her die.”

“I was surprised at this doctor, that it was even an option,” recalls Gross. “It would have been immoral to let her die. I remember thinking, ‘How can this even be legal?’ She was not at any point near death, yet I could have made that decision.”

Which was precisely why he left a long-term career in computer programming and started Guardian Conservator Services, basing it in St. Paul, Minn.

As a Catholic father of nine children, Gross felt called by God to defend people like his Alzheimer's client — whose situation, not incidentally, turned around with a change in her medications.

“What convicted me was that these people really need to be defended, and that is my sole purpose in doing what I'm doing,” says Gross. “Their very life is at a place where they are vulnerable.”

Then, too, it's no longer just the pre-born or the elderly who are in danger, notes Julie Grimstad, who co-founded and directed the now-disbanded Center for the Rights of the Terminally Ill from 1985 to 2003. “We're all in danger when someone else feels our life is not worth living. We really need to understand what's going on in the medical and legal fields,” she says. “Terri Schiavo (the Florida woman whose husband is fighting her parents in court for the right to remove her feeding tubes) probably never expected to be in the situation that she's in, and it can happen to any one of us. She's caught in a legal system where the legal guardian has been changed from one who protects to one who can decide to kill. We must be able to protect our loved ones.”

Early this year, Grimstad, of Stevens Point, Wis., founded the national organization Life is Worth Living, which she named after the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's television program. Its members are dedicated to restoring authentic respect for human life through educational efforts and prayer.

“Our main focus is on prayer and changing the culture one person at a time, starting with ourselves,” says Grimstad. “We are trying to promote and explain the Church's teaching, because it has the best teaching and most consistent of anything on this planet.”

Grimstad points out that Pope John Paul II has vigorously upheld that providing food and water, even when ingestion has to be medically assisted, is an ordinary means of preserving life. His declaration last March — an address to participants of the International Congress on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas” — was very definitive and welcome, she adds. Yet, even now, “Catholic health facilities defer to ethicists and moral theologians who are saying, ‘Let's study what the Pope is saying,’ and the bishops have yet to agree on this issue.”

Grimstad recalls a 1991 case in which a 30-year-old Texas woman named Terri was shot in the head and doctors deemed it too dangerous to remove the bullets. At the time, most of the Texas bishops had signed a statement approving the withholding of feeding tubes from people in vegetative states, which conflicted with Church teaching. But Terri was not in a vegetative state — she was paralyzed and needed to be fed because she couldn't speak or swallow.

Doctors convinced Terri that they could “keep her comfortable if she wanted them to remove food and water,” and Terri agreed. But Terri's family did not want her to die and contacted Grimstad for help. Grimstad communicated with Terri through a letter board and found that she only wanted to die so she “could go to heaven.” A psychological evaluation also found that Terri was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Even after Terri decided to live, the hospital hired an attorney to protect her right to die.

“We got a pro-life attorney to protect her right to live. She lived for 6 1/2 more years, she got to see her son grow up, and she died peacefully in her sleep,” says Grimstad. “Ironically, the doctors would not remove the bullets because they were afraid it would kill her, yet they were willing to kill her by starving her to death. And the legal system claimed she was competent to make a decision to die, but determined she was not competent when she made the decision to live. Those kinds of cases are happening all over the country. People are not able to make decisions for themselves, they do not have an advocate, and they are being starved to death.”

The euthanasia and assisted-suicide movements have not gained ground in legislatures, ballot boxes or the courts since Oregon passed its assisted-suicide law in 1994, according to Rita Marker, executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide in Stuebenville, Ohio. But “right-todie” attitudes, along with the pressure incapacitated people feel not to be a burden to others, have filtered down into medical and legal communities, clergy and patients.

Dianne Johnson, a radiation and oncology nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, says it's common for patients to feel like a burden to their families. “There's an unspoken feeling that, at some point, there will be no more support, no relationship left, so we might as well kill them,” says Johnson. “One time, a wife of a patient told me, ‘They might as well take me out to the cornfield and do me in because I wouldn't want to be a burden like this.’”

That attitude is very dangerous and should be of great concern, says Marker. “We tend to say that old phrase, ‘I wouldn't want to live like that,’ until we are like that. And then we say, ‘Oops, I've changed my mind.’ There are many ways that many of us would not choose to live, but life isn't always what would want.”

Marker says most people only become aware of these attitudes when they find themselves in a stressful situation where someone close is sick and decisions must be made. And many of them do not have someone to advocate for them. Her organization provides a protective medical-decisions document, an advance directive that can be customized to each state's laws. To obtain a package, call the International Task Force at (800) 958-5678 or visit internationaltaskforce. org on the Internet.

Grimstad recently completed an informational supplement for the Human Life Alliance. Titled “Euthanasia: Imposed Death,” it clarifies many of the legal and medical issues regarding health-care decisions. For it, call the Human Life Alliance at (651) 484-1040 or visit on the Internet.

Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.