This week’s question: “Is ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ euthanasia?”
Your question gives us the opportunity to provide a wee bit of guidance on an important and often confusing issue, so – as always, thanks for asking!
First off, before we begin here, we should clarify some terms. By euthanasia, we’re not referring to Chinese, Russian, or Korean children – but rather the practice of ending the life of someone in an attempt to prevent suffering. This is most often thought of in the case of an elderly and/or terminally ill person, but is being considered more and more in the case of disabled children and others.
“Do not resuscitate” (DNR), in this context, has very little to do the Department of Natural Resources; rather, it refers to an “order” not to attempt to revive a particular individual if she stops breathing and/or her heart stops beating (as in CPR or the use of electrical/chemical stimulants to restart the heart).
Euthanasia is always morally evil, since God alone is the author and master of life. Euthanasia is a direct violation of the 5th Commandment (see CCC 2276 – 2279). In dealing with end-of-life medical treatment, we need to make an important distinction between ordinary treatment (things like providing hydration and nutrition and medical treatments that have a reasonable chance of success without imposing an undue burden or risk) and extraordinary treatment (those actions which have little chance of providing a real benefit and which also impose a great risk or burden). Ordinary treatments should always be provided, whereas extraordinary treatments may legitimately be refused.
So, let’s look at something like a ‘DNR order’. There are times when providing CPR may truly be considered extraordinary. For example, if I am in the final stages of dying from pancreatic cancer or some other incurable disease, then CPR would be unlikely to provide much benefit; or, if I was a 104 year-old woman with severe osteoporosis, then CPR would likely pose a great risk of severe injury without a great foreseeable benefit. In cases such as these, a DNR would not involve any act of euthanasia. However, in most other cases, a DNR order could very well inhibit medical personnel from saving my life, and could be seen as a form of euthanasia.
An important principle to keep in mind in all of these decisions is that our physical and spiritual condition is always in flux, and so blanket medical orders in advance directives or ‘living wills’ are not a good idea. Rather, you should appoint someone (called a “health care agent”) that you trust to make decisions for you in the event that you are unable to communicate. You should discuss your wishes with this person, and assure that they will not act in a way that contradicts Catholic teaching.
I know that this response has been (by necessity) a little sketchy and brief, so if you have more questions or a different way of looking at this one, please post a comment on our “Three Parish Catholic Family” Facebook page. And keep those questions coming! May God bless you now and always!