Saturday 10 January 2009

Birthday wish for Sir Stepen Wall, Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's former principal adviser

Sir Stephen Wall, former principal adviser to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, 2004 - 2005, is 62 today, according to The Times. Happy birthday, Sir Stephen.

I have a birthday wish for Sir Stephen Wall, on behalf of those fighting to protect the lives of unborn children and the lives of vulnerable patients, particularly the elderly and disabled.

It's that next December,in the month before his birthday, he does not write in the Catholic media, or in any other publication, attacking the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life. In doing so, he further undermines the right to life of the most vulnerable human beings, and betrays the Gospel message of the Church which entrusted him with such high office.

As Pope John Paul II put it in the first sentence of his encyclical Evangelium Vitae: "The Gospel of Life is at the heart of Jesus's message."

In December, 2007, he published a badly-informed article attacking the Church on IVF, contraception and on other matters; and last month, he attacked the Church's position on euthanasia in a letter to The Tablet. On 1st December, 2007, The Tablet published his article "Rendering Unto Caesar", in which he wrote:

"Last week, the Church in our own country was arguing that giving same-sex couples access to in vitro fertilisation (IVF) was wrong, because of the harm to be done by bringing fatherless children into the world. Yet this is the same Church which, by proclaiming the iniquity of artificial contraception, wills into the world millions of children who will never know true parental love of any kind ... The Church makes another mistake by giving pre-eminence to its concept of law and disregarding its duty of love. In the case of IVF, we are talking about couples who would not go through the heartache of the process unless they wanted, out of their love for each other, to bring a much-loved child into the world ... "
One of the many problems with Sir Stephen's thinking (only to be fully appreciated by reading his article to which I link above) is its implicit rejection of children who are not "much-loved"; the countless children killed by abortifacient "artificial contraception" - birth control drugs and devices which, according to the manufacturers, can prevent a newly-conceived embryo from implanting in the lining of the womb; and IVF – which gave birth to the first IVF child over thirty years ago – has led to over two million embryos discarded, or frozen, or selectively aborted, or miscarried or used in destructive experiments. (2,137,924 human embryos were created by specialists while assisting couples in the UK to have babies between 1991 and 2005, according to BioNews.)

The recently published Dignitas Personae spells out beautifully the fundamental ethical criterion used in the Catholic Church's teaching (in Donum Vitae) which is to be used to evaluate all moral questions arising from any procedures which involve the human embryo: the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say, from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life. (Donum vitae, 1,1: 45 80 (1988), 79, cited in DP, n 4)

Dignitas Personae reiterates the ethical unacceptability of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) since “all techniques of in vitro fertilisation proceed as if the human embryo were simply a mass of cells to be used, selected, and discarded"(Dignitas Personae n 14); and it comments on the very high wastage of human embryos associated with IVF and related procedures. “In many cases the abandonment, destruction and loss of embryos are foreseen and willed" (Dignitas Personae, n 15)

I strongly recommend that Sir Stephen Wall studies this document in order to appreciate that love truly is at the heart of Church's proclamation of the Gospel of life; and that he looks at the compassionate, realistic alternative to IVF to be found in Naprotechnology which has grown to become a comprehensive branch of women’s health medicine, which respects both the natural fertility cycle and the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Fortunately, Sir Stephen's letter to The Tablet last month was answered well by Dr Julian Hughes, as you can see below.

The Tablet, Letters, 20/27 December 2008

Palliative care has limits

My sister, Mary, died from cancer in early December. The day after her death there was a renewed surge of public interest in the question of assisted dying because of the first such death to be shown on British television.In February 2006, at the age of 67, my sister was found to have fluid in the lining of her lung and the fluid contained malignant cells. For the next two and a half years she underwent successive courses of chemotherapy, with little respite. She suffered hair loss, loss of feeling in her feet (makingwalking difficult), nausea and insomnia. But she did not lose her will to live and, when she was feeling well enough, she pursued her life as normally as anyone can who has a death sentence hanging over them and whose life is geared to the rhythms of a nasty disease.

At the end of November, my sister was found to have a perforated bowel. She was not strong enough to undergo a repair operation and, on the advice of her doctors and with her consent, treatment was stopped because it would have been pointless and painful and she was admitted to hospital for palliative care. She said that she hoped she could go out "on a pink cloud"and the palliative care team said they would do their best to achieve just that. In the event, she died exactly two weeks later.

Ever-increasing doses of morphine and other sedatives kept my sister's pain under control. But she was not at all times pain-free and she was certainly not free from distress. Some days before her death, when she was still able to whisper, she asked me, "When is this going to end? I cannot bear it much longer". At that point, had her carers had the power to give her an amount of morphine, or other drug, that would have peacefully ended her life she - and we - would have accepted with gratitude. Yet all of us were powerless under the existing law.

There is something hypocritical about the present law. It allows ever-increasing doses of morphine, which are undoubtedly a contributorycause of death, however precisely and clinically they are measured. Yet it does not allow the combined consent of the patient, family and medical advisers to foreshorten the period of pain and anguish. Is that the will of a loving God? I cannot bring myself to think so.

(Sir) Stephen Wall, London SW18

The Tablet, Letters, 3 January 2009

Yes to care, no to killing

Even those of us who are very inclined to agree with Clifford Longley’s arguments (20/27 December) about the dangers of autonomy as far as physician-assisted suicide is concerned cannot but be moved by Stephen Wall’s story about the sad death of his sister (Letters, 20/27 December). Nonetheless, Sir Stephen’s suggestions must be challenged.

Sir Stephen accepts that medication kept his sister’s pain under control, but goes on to say that she was not always pain-free and "certainly not free from distress". He says he cannot bring himself to think that this is the will of a loving God. He is right that we are confronted by a difficulty here, but it’s not one confined to palliative care. It’s the problem of evil generally: how does the loving God will any of the enormous suffering that occurs in the world? If we cannot answer this question, and understand to some degree the role of suffering in our lives, there are difficulties for our belief in the idea of a loving God.

Secondly, Sir Stephen suggests that ever increasing doses of morphine are "undoubtedly a contributory cause of death". Palliative physicians would rightly respond that morphine, when used for pain, even in high doses, does not cause death. And there is still the doctrine of double effect, that it is licit to do things, foreseeing their bad consequences, but intending good. This is a cause of much philosophical dispute, but the doctrine underpins quotidian medical decisions: I foresee side effects from all drugs, but I aim at some sort of good when I prescribe them.

Sir Stephen asserts that there is "something hypocritical about the present law". But the prohibition on ending innocent human lives remains a cornerstone of civil society, which would be removed by Sir Stephen’s call for euthanasia. My suggestion would be that we need better palliative care, not intentional killing.

In saying this, however, I suspect that the line between the two is often thin and indistinct in practice. Clinical judgements have to be finely made with a good deal of practical wisdom, courage and compassion. One fear about a change to the present law is that it would undermine the basis of such virtues.

(Dr) Julian Hughes, Newcastle upon Tyne