As a newcomer to pro-life activism in 1975, I was captivated along with the nation by the case of Karen Ann Quinlan. Quinlan had been hospitalized after suffering an event that deprived her of oxygen for a prolonged period and led doctors to diagnose her as being in a persistent vegetative state. She was placed on a respirator and provided with a feeding tube, but her parents wanted the respirator removed because they felt it was "extraordinary care" keeping her alive artificially rather than allowing her to live or die "in God's time." The hospital refused, however, because, it said, that would violate New Jersey's homicide law. Her landmark legal case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which found in the Quinlans' favor.
Unfortunately, some in our movement have shifted from simply protecting ordinary care to pushing to establish extraordinary care as the new standard.
The decision was important for me and others in the pro-life community for confirming the standard of ordinary versus extraordinary care. Our position has always been to protect the maintenance of ordinary care — deemed to be food, water and oxygen — but not extraordinary care; it was never the movement's position that there was a right to such treatment but rather that doctors should not hasten death.
Forty-five years later, it's important to remember this foundational pro-life principle. Unfortunately, some in our movement have shifted from simply protecting ordinary care to pushing to establish extraordinary care as the new standard. They want unlimited care interventions even when futile, inappropriate or outright harmful — and in violation of doctors' consciences and their oath to do no harm.
Tragically, they are pushing for this treatment in the case of Tinslee Lewis, a 1-year-old born in my home state of Texas with a severe heart defect. Her doctors say she is suffering with no hope of improvement and should be taken off life support, but the family and some right-to-life advocates have appealed to the courts to block the decision. An important hearing in her case is being held Tuesday.
This new position is especially troubling, because conscience is a central ethic of medicine, and to strip doctors of their right to conscience would enslave them to the whims of the state, society and patient surrogates. In fact, conscience protections were some of our first pro-life victories. Laws enacted in the 1970s protected medical providers who refused to participate in abortions or sterilizations. In 1996, we further protected medical students who didn't wish to train to perform abortions. Many state protections have been sought and won since.
The recent March for Life at the end of January, the pro-life community's largest annual national rally, for the first time featured the current U.S. president as a speaker. This should be a time for unity and reaffirmation of the central tenets of the movement. Instead, we face a division that not only splinters our advocacy, but also has terrible real-world consequences for those enduring fates similar to those of Quinlan and Tinslee.
Trinity Lewis, Tinslee's mom, has expressed hope through her attorneys and advisers at Texas Right to Life that her daughter can transition home for palliative care, and she has sued to demand that the hospital keep her daughter on her ventilator and resuscitate her multiple times a day indefinitely. The alternative is a transfer to another facility, but no facility has been willing to take her. Sworn testimony from doctors and nurses who have cared for Tinslee her entire life suggests Lewis is being misled that her daughter has any hope for a better outcome.
As a mother myself, I can only imagine Lewis' pain, and I understand deeply why she holds out such hope. Which is why it's so crucial that the medical establishment be respected for its expertise and guidance and that the laws put in place to make the best decision for patients in these circumstances be followed. Unfortunately, what we have seen in the media from attorneys, family and advisers for Tinslee constitutes a distortion of the patient's condition, the law at the heart of the lawsuit and the historic pro-life positions regarding euthanasia and end-of-life care. In fact, several other key organizations, including Texas Alliance for Life and the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, support the position of my group, Texans for Life.
Tinslee, who has a nurse dedicated solely to her care 24/7, struggles to survive any agitation, including diaper changes, leading to "dying events" on a daily basis. The medicines help control her breathing and her pain, but they keep her in deep sedation and a state of paralysis to minimize those dying events. No one can reasonably argue that the care Tinslee receives is ordinary.
To deal with heart-wrenching scenarios such as these, the state has a carefully constructed law respectful of pro-life concerns about end-of-life treatments and interventions, which balances the need to protect life, patient dignity and the conscience rights of providers. The law, the Texas Advance Directives Act, allows doctors and hospitals to give families like the Lewises a deadline to seek treatment elsewhere when they no longer believe interventions are appropriate. It was signed by a Republican governor in consultation with a large number of pro-life organizations.
But Tinslee's advocates complain that the law is unconstitutional because it deprives patients of due process before they are deprived of their right to life, as the 10 days the law allows to find an alternative facility is not enough time to complete a transfer. In fact, Tinslee's hospital has been looking for alternative facilities for months. According to the doctors we've consulted with on this case, a typical hospital transfer takes only three to four days.
The mounting health care costs that would result from mandating extraordinary care, regardless of the futility, risks a renewed push — and acceptance — of euthanasia.
Worse yet, the pro-life group that's helping to bring this legal challenge is trying to change the concept of what constitutes euthanasia. The idea that anything less than a full-court press until every cell is dead somehow constitutes euthanasia is new and dangerous. The mounting health care costs that would result from mandating extraordinary care, regardless of the futility, risks a renewed push — and acceptance — of euthanasia, as we have seen in other countries.
More than rhetoric or distortions, the law or a movement, this case is about Tinslee, her family and the caregivers who have worked so hard to save her life. But if the court tramples on the carefully constructed legal mechanisms to safeguard her best interests and empowers groups like Texas Right to Life to redefine euthanasia and diminish doctors' conscience rights, we will all be damaged.