Pope says 'intent to end life' is completely different from withdrawing excessive or inappropriate medical treatment

The Pope has addressed the ethics of medical intervention, telling doctors at the Vatican that those caring for the sick “without shortening their life, but also without futilely resisting their death.”

The European members of the World Medical Association met on Thursday for a discussion with the Pontifical Academy for Life on end-of-life care. At the same time, across St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the International Confederation of Catholic Health Care Institutions were hosting a meeting on inequalities in health care.

“Increasingly sophisticated and costly treatments are available to ever more limited and privileged segments of the population,” the Pope said, “and this raises questions about the sustainability of health care delivery and about what might be called a systemic tendency toward growing inequality in health care.

“This tendency is clearly visible at a global level, particularly when different continents are compared,” he said.

“But it is also present within the more wealthy countries, where access to health care risks being more dependent on individuals’ economic resources than on their actual need for treatment.”

A variety of factors must be taken into account when determining what medical interventions to use and for how long with a person approaching the end of his or her earthly life, Pope Francis said.

For those with resources, treatments are available that “have powerful effects on the body, yet at times do not serve the integral good of the person.”

The Pope referred to Pope Pius XII, who 60 years ago told anaesthesiologists and intensive care specialists that “there is no obligation to have recourse in all circumstances to every possible remedy and that, in some specific cases, it is permissible to refrain from their use.”

“From an ethical standpoint,” the Pope said, withholding or withdrawing excessive treatment “is completely different from euthanasia, which is always wrong, in that the intent of euthanasia is to end life and cause death.”

If the patient is competent and able, the Pope said, he or she “has the right, obviously in dialogue with medical professionals, to evaluate a proposed treatment and to judge its actual proportionality in his or her concrete case” and to refuse the treatment “if such proportionality is judged lacking.”

In either case, he said, even medical professionals must follow “the supreme commandment of responsible closeness,” remaining alongside those who are dying.

“It could be said that the categorical imperative is to never abandon the sick,” he said.

“The anguish associated with conditions that bring us to the threshold of human mortality, and the difficulty of the decision we have to make, may tempt us to step back from the patient. Yet this is where, more than anything else, we are called to show love and closeness, recognising the limit that we all share and showing our solidarity.”

“Let each of us give love in his or her own way – as a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a brother or sister, a doctor or a nurse. But give it!” Pope Francis said.