I just received the most recent edition of Ethics & Medics: A Commentary of the National Catholic Bioethics Center on Health Care and the Life Sciences (wow, they need to shorten that). It is a four page newsletter that comes out every month with various medical ethical issues being discussed. This month the issue in question is whether or not to deactivate someone’s pacemaker in given situations. The issue itself is not my reason for this post but instead information within the first article that I was not aware of beforehand, which has to do with ordinary and extraordinary means of medical care.
The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary does not take into account the entirety of a patient’s medical situation; it can only concern the relationship between a specific problem, its corresponding treatment, and that treatment’s effects.
Ethics & Medics, Nov. 2014, vol. 39, num. 11, page 2.
What this means is that you cannot combine all of a patient’s various and unrelated symptoms and say that any care given would therefore be extraordinary. For instance, the type of situation it discusses in the article is when someone has a serious and painful disease that would cause them to die if it were not for the fact that they had a pacemaker. But, the disease and the pacemaker are totally unrelated. Therefore, you cannot deactivate the pacemaker saying that it is extraordinary means of treatment because what it is treating is unrelated to that which is causing the severe pain. There could be other reasons in which the pacemaker could be viewed as extraordinary and therefore could be removed but it cannot be removed because of an unrelated illness – no matter how bad it may be.
But before anyone says, “The Catholic Church is so mean; why do they want people to suffer.” The Church does not want anyone to suffer but instead recognizes that suffering is a part of our experience in this life. In addition the Church does believe in and promote the use of medicines that can alleviate pain. Lastly, the Church does not allow euthanasia or anything else that could be done that would be for the express purpose of ending the patient’s life because she (the Church) recognizes that we are not the creators of our lives but instead the stewards of it. And, therefore, we are bound to protect our lives with the ordinary means that are available to us.
For more information on the subject you can go to §2278-9 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church or go to the USCCB document located here. (Helpful in particular is Part Five that starts on page 29 and especially §55-7 that starts on page 30.)