Sioux City, Iowa — As legislative proposals for doctor-prescribed suicide become more prevalent, the Catholic bishops of Iowa have organized a statewide effort to promote an awareness about end-of-life care that is aligned with Catholic teaching.
Archbishop Michael O. Jackels of Dubuque and Bishops Martin J. Amos of Davenport, Richard E. Pates of Des Moines and R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City announced the Supportive Care Iowa project for those seeking guidance on end-of-life care.
Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference in Des Moines, said while the bishops know the wealth of Catholic teaching that goes into the dignity of human life, they also realize how difficult it is to get the right information about what the church actually teaches about end-of-life care and care for the sick.
"The bishops thought now would be a good time to start an educational project in the four dioceses that helps to get information out to the people," he said.
While there is a legislative component to the Supportive Care Iowa project, Chapman said the bishops intend for it to be a long-term educational and pastoral project.
Scott Steffen of Boone, a diocesan contact person for this project, spoke of the importance of educating the Catholic faithful regarding church teaching on end-of-life issues.
"With the strong push for 'physician assisted suicide' in Iowa, it's important for Catholics to understand church teachings and options available as they face these issues with family members," he said.
Terri Prenger of Carroll, another diocesan contact person, said this project is not just about advanced directives, but about having serious talks within families on what people want as they approach their final days. Plus, she added, many people don't understand the value of pain management or hospice care and they would like to offer guidelines for them.
"We need to make good and holy decisions not influenced by those who propose assisted suicide," Prenger told The Catholic Globe, newspaper of the Diocese of Sioux City. "We need to approach these decisions based on what God wants and on his timeline. While many people are concerned about being a burden on their families, I believe these directives and discussions will ease those concerns."
Her own parents have been hospitalized many times over the past few years and Prenger acknowledged it has been frustrating to have to explain over and over to the rotating emergency room doctors what the Catholic viewpoint is.
"It is not enough to say or even have written a directive that simply states, 'I wish to follow the guidelines of the Catholic Church' -- the ER doctor doesn't know what those directives are. The idea here is to have a living will in place that absolutely states what these directives entail," said Prenger.
Chapman also stressed the importance of such conversations beginning within families.
"Right now, there are many people who do not want to talk about end-of-life and what that might mean for their families, but we think it's real important to talk about it in advance before there is any crisis," he said.
In 2015, the Iowa bishops formed an "end-of-life care" workgroup to submit recommendations to them on educating Catholic parishioners, as well as personnel at Catholic health care institutions, on the church's teaching.
Some of the approved recommendations include holding webinars and in-person meetings for parish nurses and other key personnel, training facilitators to assist parishioners on a one-on-one basis with advance care planning, offering presentations on end-of-life decision making and advance directives in parishes as well as directing education efforts toward medical professionals to increase knowledge of the church's teaching on this subject.
"The hope is the Supportive Care Iowa project will provide parishioners with the tools and education necessary to make informed moral choices," said Steffen. "Parishioners will be able obtain practical information on how to complete advance directives that conform with Catholic moral teachings."
Assistance also will be provided to direct people to information such as websites and resources regarding end-of-life issues. Chapman said project organizers are establishing a website they hope to bring online by the end of May.
According to Prenger, the next step in the Diocese of Sioux City is to identify medical and legal personnel who would be willing to help get the word out about this project.
"We need to give the power to make holy decisions back to the patient and their families based on true compassionate advice and not on financial cost."
Legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Iowa has stalled in the state's Legislature, but public support for the practice has grown.
Assisted suicide is currently legal in Oregon, Vermont, Montana and Washington state. A California law allowing assisted suicide takes effect June 9. An effort to bring the California law before the voters failed to gain the 365,880 signatures needed to place the issue on the November 2016 ballot.
In Utah, lawmakers introduced the End of Life Options Act but it failed to pass its first committee hearing before the Legislature's 2016 session ended in early March. The proposal could be considered by the Health and Human Services Committee during its monthly meetings from April through December. Catholic leaders in the state said regardless of whether it is on the committee agenda, they expect proponents of assisted suicide to continue to amass studies, journal articles, and media in support of the proposal, and they urged opponents of the measure to do the same.