Kansas City bishop pens passionate defense of life in response to Jahi McMath case
KANSAS CITY, January 15, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – “Sometimes things are not as they seem.” That was the title given to a recent opinion piece by Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, who urged readers of The Catholic Key diocesan newspaper to “work hard and speak out clearly for the protection of human life at all its moments.” The bishop was writing in response to the story of Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old Oakland, California girl who was declared “legally dead” by hospital and government officials even as she remained on a respirator with her heart beating on its own.
Oakland Children’s Hospital and the Alameda County Coroner declared that McMath was “brain dead” on Dec. 12 after she suffered unexpected complications from a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy which led to cardiac arrest. Afterward, her family fought a nearly month-long legal battle with the hospital to keep her on life support, ultimately settling with the hospital to secure her release to a Catholic care facility where she is now receiving treatment.
“[S]ometimes things are not as they seem, and Dr. [Paul] Byrne, who went to Oakland a few days after Christmas, doesn’t believe Jahi is dead,” wrote Bishop Finn. “What moved me most was something I had not yet read in any media accounts: He told me that Jahi was not totally unresponsive – but rather, when touched or talked to by family members, she moves her arms and/or legs. I must say that this is not what I imagined in the case of someone who is dead.”
McMath’s heartbreaking case, as well as the case of Marlise Munoz, a pregnant woman who is being kept on life support over her husbands wishes, have spurred national debate over how death is defined in the United States, and whether family members or doctors should be the ultimate arbiters of when it is time to “let go” of a neurologically devastated patient. Munoz is being kept on life support due to a Texas state law that prohibits hospitals from removing life support from a woman who is pregnant before her baby is viable for delivery.
While all 50 states have passed laws defining “brain death” as the legal endpoint of life, the criteria for declaring a patient brain dead vary from state to state. What passes for brain death in California may not qualify as death in another state, a discrepancy that has led critics of the “brain death” movement to accuse doctors of playing God – declaring living patients “legally dead” so that their healthy organs can be harvested, or worse yet, in order to limit hospital liability in cases like Jahi’s, where a routine procedure goes horribly wrong.
In his opinion piece on the subject, Bishop Finn said that while the Catholic Church allows families to withhold “extraordinary means” of care, such as a ventilator, from dying loved ones, “Catholic moral teaching would also support the extraordinary efforts required to keep the child alive, if that was the chosen path,” and noted that “no one entrusted with her guardianship is opposed to continuing Jahi’s life.”
Citing the work of Dr. Byrne, a pediatrician and medical school professor who has done extensive research on brain death, especially as it relates to children, the bishop argued that Jahi’s family is well within their rights to give the girl as much time as they feel is needed to offer her a chance at recovery.
“’Brain death’ is established by a measure of brain activity (or loss of it),” Bishop Finn wrote. “Dr. Byrne would point out that brain waves are a measure of such activity in three parts of the brain: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. He would hold, and has written in many talks and articles, that measuring activity within the deeper recesses of the brain is not yet possible, and therefore may still exist in a subject. He also believes that children have a higher rate of recoverability from brain injuries. Their brains are more ‘pliable’ and can heal in ways that often surprise the experts.”
Added Finn, “The observation of reactions (movement of arms or legs) like those reported to be seen in Jahi, lends credence to the possibility that, though there are no measurable brain waves, brain activity may still exist and life may still be present. Thus seems to be the conviction of the family of Jahi McMath.”
“Pray for Jahi and for this family,” the bishop urged the Catholic faithful. “Pray also that authentic moral principles will be upheld in the midst of a scientific endeavor which is always complicated, but which requires many, many prudential decisions. We must work hard and speak out clearly for the protection of human life at all its moments.”