There can be no true peace unless life is defended and promoted
A reflection on Euthanasia
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
May 12, 2016
The Supreme Court of Canada decided on February 6, 2015 that Canadians have a legal right to ask for and receive a doctor’s help in killing themselves. Originally the court gave Parliament one year to pass a new law to replace sections of the Criminal Code which had previously forbidden assisted suicide. A fall election and a slow process of review made it impossible for the politicians to meet the original deadline, which was then extended six months. Bill C-14 “An Act to amend the Criminal Code and to make related amendments to other Acts (medical assistance in dying)” passed second reading April 22, 2016. Bill C-14, no matter how it may be amended, is an affront to human dignity, an erosion of human solidarity, and a danger to all vulnerable persons. It is a fundamentally unjust law. Why should we absolutely and categorically disagree with any attempt at justifying or supporting a ‘right’ to assisted suicide or euthanasia? In light of the very sad and deeply troubling decision of the Supreme Court of Canada overturning Canada’s euthanasia law, I offer you these reflections.
There is nothing new about people becoming terminally ill, suffering, wanting to die, and our being able to kill them. Right-to-die movements have gained momentum at a time of anxiety about aging populations; people who are older than 65 represent the fastest growing demographic in the United States, Canada, and much of Europe.
Let’s look beyond our borders to witness the ambiguous and destructive powers of the proponents of a right-to-death. In Belgium, a country that some are justifiably calling “the killing fields”, euthanasia is now embraced as an emblem of enlightenment, liberation and progress, signs that the country has freed itself from its deeply Catholic roots and heritage. Belgium was the second country in the world, after the Netherlands, to decriminalize euthanasia; it was followed by Luxembourg, in 2009, and, this year, by Canada and Colombia. Switzerland has allowed assisted suicide since 1942. The United States Supreme Court has recognized that citizens have legitimate concerns about prolonged deaths in institutional settings, but in 1997 it ruled that death is not a constitutionally protected right, leaving questions about assisted suicide to be resolved by each state. Several months after the ruling, the state of Oregon passed a law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for patients who have less than six months to live. In 2008, the State of Washington adopted a similar law; Montana decriminalized assisted suicide the following year; and Vermont legalized it in 2013.
In Oregon and Switzerland, studies have shown that people who request death are less motivated by physical pain than by the desire to remain autonomous. In Belgium and in the Netherlands, where patients can be euthanized without even having a terminal illness, the laws seem to have permeated the medical establishment more deeply than elsewhere, perhaps because of the central role granted to doctors: in the majority of cases, it is the doctor, not the patient, who performs the final act. In the past five years, euthanasia and assisted-suicide deaths in the Netherlands have doubled, and in Belgium they have increased by more than a hundred and fifty per cent. Although most of the Belgian patients had cancer, people were euthanized because they had autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression.
Laws allowing euthanasia or doctor-assisted-death seem to be motivated less by the desires of the elderly than by the concerns of a younger generation, whose members derive comfort from the knowledge that they can control the end of their lives. Belgian laws have created a new understanding of suicide as a medical treatment, totally divorced of its tragic and moral dimensions.
Why is the case against euthanasia so hard to establish? When personal and societal values were consistent, widely shared and based on shared religion, the case against euthanasia was simple. God commanded: “You shall not kill.” In secular societies based on intense individualism, the case for euthanasia is simple: Individuals have the right to choose the manner, time and place of their death. In contrast, in such societies the case against euthanasia is complex. Is anyone concerned any longer about harm caused to the entire community rather than being obsessed with personal and individual preferences?
Death has now been professionalized, technologized, depersonalized and dehumanized. Facing those realities makes euthanasia seem an attractive option and easier to introduce and accept. Conversations about death used to take place in religious conversation and in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples during worship services. Such conversations were serious and always had moral dimensions. No so any longer. Death talk is on radio and TV talk shows and in unreflective media. It is so often cheap conversation for such a serious topic. And the moral dimension is absent.
Our parliaments and courts have replaced our religious centres. That has resulted in the legalization of societal ethical and moral debates, including in relation to death. It is not surprising, therefore, that the euthanasia debate centres on its legalization. The vast exposure to death that we are subjected to in both current-affairs and entertainment programs might have overwhelmed our sensitivity to the awesomeness of death as well as inflicting it.
Mainstream media has caused great confusion about the topic of euthanasia and has been extremely deceptive in its portrayal of human suffering and compassion. Most people who think that euthanasia and assisted suicide should be legal are not thinking the whole issue through. They are thinking about personal autonomy and choice. They think about what it would be like to suddenly become incapacitated and consider such a life as undignified or worthless. Perhaps they consider severely disabled people as having no quality of life. Our dignity and quality of life don’t come from what we can or cannot do. Dignity and quality of life are not matters of efficiency, proficiency and productivity. They come from a deeper place – from who we are and how we relate to each other.
There are solid secular arguments against euthanasia: legalizing euthanasia would harm the very important shared societal value of respect for life, and change the basic norm that we must not kill one another. It would also harm the two main institutions – law and medicine. These pillars of society are more important in a secular society than in a religious one for upholding the value of respect for life. And, it would harm people’s trust in medicine and make them fearful of seeking treatment.
Our society has lost sight of the sacred nature of human life. As Catholic Christians we are deeply committed to the protection of life from its earliest moments to its final moments. When people today speak about a “good death,” they usually refer to an attempt to control the end of one’s life, even through physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. The Christian notion of a good death, however, is death not as a good end, but a good transition, that requires faith, proper acceptance and readiness. The dimension of the Paschal mystery of suffering, death and resurrection has been absent from our end of life conversation and discussion.
When life is not respected, should we be surprised that other rights will sooner or later be threatened? Aging populations, especially in the west, and resulting smaller workforces are now creating a market push towards euthanasia. As St. John Paul II wrote: “a right to die will inevitably give way to the duty to die.”
What is wrong with abortion, euthanasia, embryo selection, and embryonic research is not the motives of those who carry them out. So often, those motives are, on the surface, compassionate: to protect a child from being unwanted, to end pain and suffering, to help a child with a life-threatening disease. But in all these cases, the terrible truth is that it is the strong who decide the fate of the weak; human beings therefore become instruments in the hands of other human beings.
Pope Francis has criticized those who support a right to euthanasia for people suffering painful or terminal illnesses, saying that they spread a “lie” that lives affected by such illnesses are not worth living. In his annual message for the World Day of the Sick, celebrated by the Catholic church each February 11, Francis criticizes the phrase “quality of life,” frequently used by those who advocate for euthanasia rights to emphasize the pain suffered by some ill persons who might choose to medically end their lives if given the chance by law. Francis makes the critique in a section of the message that emphasizes the importance of spending time with those who are sick or ill. Pope Francis first asks that the Holy Spirit “grant us the grace to appreciate the value of our often unspoken willingness to spend time with these sisters and brothers who, thanks to our closeness and affection, feel more loved and comforted.” In his 2016 Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis writes (#48): “Euthanasia and assisted suicide are serious threats to families worldwide; in many countries, they have been legalized. The Church, while firmly opposing these practices, feels the need to assist families who take care of their elderly and infirm members”.
We must never lose sight of the atrocities against the unborn, the untold and too-seldom spoken of pain and lingering anguish experienced by those who have been involved in abortions. Nor can we ignore the other great challenge faced by humanity today – the serious question of mercy killing, or euthanasia as it is sometimes called, no longer found in abstract cases and theories. It has arrived on our shores and it has invaded our lives. This issue strikes to the very core of who we are and what we believe. Even when not motivated by the refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering, euthanasia must be called a false and misguided mercy. True compassion leads to sharing another’s pain, not killing the person whose suffering we cannot bear. The best way to know if we are still in any way a Christian society is to see how we treat our most vulnerable people, the ones with little or no claim on public attention, the ones without beauty, strength or intelligence.
The Roman Catholic Church holds a consistent ethic of life. The Church offers a teaching on the inviolability, the sacredness and dignity of the human person. However, opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the dignity of the human person such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself, whatever insults human dignity such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, disgraceful working conditions where people are treated as instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons – all of these things and more poison human society. In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread: frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other states as if it were a form of cultural progress.
Suicide as a mode of euthanasia contradicts the fundamental responsibility that human beings have to protect one another and to enhance the quality of health and social care which every human life deserves, from conception to natural death. The proposed Canadian legislation for physician-assisted-death or suicide threatens to throw non-complying doctors and nurses out of their jobs and risks closing Catholic hospitals. Second, it does nothing to limit the ways in which assisted suicide may be proposed or offered to vulnerable people.
An absence of conscience protections at the federal level for those health-care professionals and institutions who refuse to take part or directly refer for assisted suicide means provincial regulators could set up a patchwork of conflicting policies that would result in fewer doctors and hospitals available to Canadians. Just when our health-care system requires more resources, not less, the federal government must not allow lower jurisdictions to drive conscientious health-care practitioners from their professions. Laws that would make medicine the agent of death on demand, are a clear violation of the sacrosanct duty of health-care providers to heal, and the responsibility of legislators and citizens to assure and provide protection for all, especially those persons most at risk.
We have a responsibility to confront the intrusion of euthanasia in our society – especially if we are to understand our moral obligation as caregivers for incapacitated persons, and our civic obligation to protect those who lack the capacity to express their will but are still human, still living, and still deserving of equal protection under the law. There can be no true peace unless life is defended and promoted from conception to natural death, from womb to tomb.