On Monday, February 20, 2011, Father James McCartney, an Associate Professor and the Director of Doctoral Studies in Philosophy at Villanova University, and Donna Kirshbaum, a Reconstructionist Rabbi at String of Pearls Congregation in New Jersey, spoke about the Catholic and Jewish Approaches to the End and Beginning of Life as part of a special guest panel during adjunct professor Andrew Newman’s Seminar class Religion, Law, and Medicine: From Embryo to the Grave.
After having the guest speakers introduce themselves, Newman presented them with a couple of hypothetical end of life scenarios and then asked them to talk about how their respective faiths viewed those situations.
While emphasizing that palliative care is encouraged and that Catholic doctrine puts no real restrictions on pain relief, Father McCartney did note, “You can’t kill the patient to remove their pain,” and that removing feeding tubes from a patient in a vegetative state would be regarded as euthanasia and therefore unacceptable. He also clarified, however, that in a case where an individual had a previously established directive that indicated they did not want to be kept alive in such a state that it should be honored.
McCartney also covered how the principle of double effect applies to end of life medical treatments, noting that it is permissible to relieve a terminally ill patient's pain even when doing so will also cause an effect one would normally be obliged to avoid, so long as only the good effect is intended. He also noted that the negative consequence must be in proportion to the good outcome.
Both Father McCartney and Rabbi Kirshbaum stressed the importance of advanced healthcare directives, with Rabbi Kirshbaum declaring, “I will not marry a couple that has not put together an advanced directive and healthcare proxy.”
In discussing the Jewish perspective, Kirshbaum noted, “We don’t own anything in this world. God is the owner. We are tenants on this planet and of our own bodies. They are on loan to us,” and she stressed that as a result, only God gets to decide when the end of life will be. She also emphasized that “duties trump rights” in the Jewish tradition, explaining that one’s duty is more important than individual rights.
The informative and engaging discussion also touched on issues related to stem cell research and reproductive rights, and the recent controversies regarding Catholic objections to provisions within the Affordable Care Act requiring certain institutions such as Catholic universities and hospitals to provide healthcare that includes contraception.