Catholic health networks opt-out of physician-assisted suicide law

Aaron Lambert

Local Catholic hospitals are exercising their right to opt-out of participating in the Colorado End-of-Life Options Act—known during the election cycle as Proposition 106—which legalizes physician-assisted suicide in Colorado.

The aid-in-dying law contains a conscience clause, which allows doctors and providers to opt-out of writing a prescription for life-ending medication.

Citing this clause, three of Colorado’s major health networks — SCL Health, Centura, which are both faith-based, and HealthONE, which is not — have announced that they will not participate in assisted suicide. In total, these three networks account for nearly one-third of Colorado’s hospitals.

What this looks like for each of the networks varies slightly; in the case of SCL Health, it means that doctors and providers employed by its hospitals and clinics are prohibited from administering life-ending prescriptions to patients seeking physician-assisted suicide.

“SCL Health caregivers will continue to provide other requested end-of-life and palliative care services to patients and families,” the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth health system issued in a statement on its website. “Any of our patients wishing to request medical aid-in-dying medication will be offered an opportunity to transfer to another facility of the patient’s choice.”

SCL Health, which oversees Good Samaritan Medical Center, St. Joseph Hospital, Lutheran Hospital and a dozen other hospitals and clinics, is a faith-based, Catholic health network, as is Centura Health, which issued a statement of its own.

“Centura Health has a long tradition of believing in the sanctity of life, extending compassionate care and relieving suffering,” it said. “As permitted by the statute, Centura Health has opted out of participating in the Colorado End-of-Life Options act.”

The hospital network said in the statement that it will continue to provide “palliative care, hospice care, spiritual care services and mental health services, so patients and their families may live with dignity until the patient’s time of death.”

The Denver Post reported that the physicians at HealthONE are allowed to speak with its patients about aid-in-dying and write prescriptions for life-ending drugs, but hospital pharmacies will not fill those prescriptions, and patients are not allowed to take the medication within the walls of the hospital.

Not everyone agrees that these new policies are legal.

In an interview with Stat News, Compassion & Choices national director of policy and programs Kat West said, “From what we’ve seen, it appears that Centura’s and SCL’s policies go beyond what is allowed under the law,” and commented that a legal challenge is “a distinct possibility.”

Other health networks, such as UCHealth, have stated that it will allow its doctors to write life-ending prescriptions, so long as the patient meets the requirements outlined in the law.

As of this writing, Catholic Health Initiatives, which has its headquarters in Englewood and operates 104 hospitals in 18 states, has not issued a policy on the End-of-Life Options Act.

Featured image by Daniel Petty

COMING UP: Amidst passage of physician-assisted suicide law, hope remains

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After a long and hard fought battle on the part of the Colorado Catholic Conference and the No on Prop 106 campaign, Colorado voters overwhelmingly voted for the passage of Proposition 106 on Nov. 8.

Proposition 106 passed with 65 percent of the vote, according to early results. The ballot measure is a medical aid in dying measure that will allow adults suffering from terminal illness to take life-ending, doctor-prescribed medication. Colorado joins four other states, including Oregon, California, Washington and Vermont, in having legalized such a measure.

The Archdiocese of Denver was the primary supporter of the No on Prop 106 campaign, promoting the Church’s teachings of recognizing the dignity of all life from conception until natural death. Proponents of the bill described it using language such as “death with dignity,” while opponents coined it physician-assisted suicide.

Colorado Catholic Conference released a statement early Wednesday decrying the decision of Colorado voters to pass the bill into state law.

“The decision the voters of Colorado have made to legalize physician-assisted suicide via the passage of Proposition 106 is a great travesty of compassion and choice for the sick, the poor, the elderly and our most vulnerable residents,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, a grave error, that will alter the lives of generations of Coloradans, has become law.”

Although many who fought against Proposition 106 are upset at the outcome, many others still remain hopeful and devoted to carrying out the Christian witness surrounding the sanctity of life. Following the decision, Divine Mercy Supportive Care, a nonprofit hospice and palliative care provider based in Denver, vowed to continue to operate as a “no-kill provider of hospice and palliative care services.”

“Its decision not to provide life-ending treatment is based on the philosophy of hospice, a 2,000-year history of caring for the sick and dying, as well as an accurate understanding of the emotional and spiritual consequences that physician-assisted suicide creates in patients, family survivors and its employees,” the health care provider said in a statement issued the day after poll results.

Hannah Baird is in her second year of physician assistant school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. As a medical student and a practicing Catholic, she is disappointed by the passage of Proposition 106, but still sees a lot of room for conversation within the medical community regarding this issue.

“I think there’s a lot of dialogue that’s still going to happen about this,” Baird told the Denver Catholic. “Just because it passed doesn’t mean that we’re done fighting. Hopefully the medical community can take a step back and really evaluate what it means to practice medicine.”

Baird has experienced an increasing amount of contention between her Catholic convictions and the world of medicine, but she believes this is all the more reason for a Catholic voice to be involved in the medical world and on issues such as Proposition 106.

“The Catholic perspective is based on good reason and natural law, and the medical world really needs that right now,” she said.