Friday, April 27, 2012
The specter of Euthanasia
This past week the Knights of Columbus at St. Patrick Church, East Hampton, sponsored an estate planning evening. At the end of the night I gave a brief overview of some of the guiding principles in end of life issues. This is a very sensitive topic because it involves questions of removing a respirator from a loved one or the administration of drugs that could in essence, kill the body before its natural death. For all people in the United States this should be an area of concern. The largest segment of the population, the baby boomers, will soon be entering, in some instances, long term care. This involves financial questions and moral/ethical questions. You can understand why some in the pro-life movement are very concerned about the wrong people making life changing decisions because they may have a view of life contrary to that of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the dignity of the human person-whether it be a fertilized egg, an unborn child, a born child with disabilities, an illegal immigrant, the poor, the sick,the elderly, those with alzheimers/dementia, a criminal on death row-all deserve to be treated with the same dignity. This is the heart of Catholic teaching. What is interesting is that the same logic that informs the conscience for Catholics on opposition to birth control is the same logic that should impel one to care for their loved ones. Here are some words from Pope John Paul's Letter to the family: "A civilization inspired by a consumerist, anti-birth mentality is not and cannot ever be a civilization of love......We thus come to the very heart of Gospel truth about freedom. The person who realizes himself by the exercise of freedom in truth. Freedom cannot be understood as a license to do absolutely anything: it means a gift of self. Even more: it means an interior discipline of the gift. The idea of gift contains not only the free initiative of the subject, but also the aspect of duty. All this is made real in the 'communion of persons.' We find ourselves again at the very heart of each family. Continuing this line of thought, we also come upon the antithesis between individualism and personalism. Love, the civilization of love, is bound up with personalism. Why with personalism? And why does individualism threaten the civilization of love? We find a key to answering this in the Council's expression, a 'sincere gift.' Individualism thus remains egocentric and selfish. The real antithesis between individualism and personalism emerges not only on the level of theory, but even more on that of 'ethos.' The ethos of personalism is altruistic: it moves a person to become a gift for others and to discover joy in giving himself. This is the joy about which Christ speaks." Simply put, decisions made on a financial basis not to have children can become in its most selfish sense, materialistic. The church does, however, allow for couple to make prudent choices on regulation of births through the use of Natural Family Planning. No one is forced to have twelve kids, they just have to live a life where the gift of a child is welcomed. At the other end of the spectrum you can see the inherent dangers. If someone is hooked to a respirator or perhaps in a long term Alzheimer's situation, an unethical, unscrupulous person may choose to play God either for financial reasons (because the inheritance is running out) or any other of different factors (mom would not want to be a burden, etc.) Any more than a disable child-perhaps one with Downs syndrome is not a burden on society (in fact they are a gift), so, too, our elderly who are sick and suffering can be a tremendous gift. Our society with all of its quick fixes has lost the value of redemptive suffering. An elderly person praying the rosary in a nursing home is living a life close to Christ. They have that same dignity as the unborn child and should be treated with the same reverence. They are Christ. Here are Pope John Paul II's words in the Gospel of Life. They need to be shouted from rooftops today because they voices for euthanasia or death with dignity are becoming louder and louder: " At the other end of life's spectrum, men and women find themselves facing the mystery of death. Today, as a result of advances in medicine and in a cultural context frequently closed to the transcendent, the experience of dying is marked by new features. When the prevailing tendency is to value life only to the extent that it brings pleasure and well-being, suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from which one must be freed at all costs. Death is considered 'senseless' if it suddenly interrupts a life still open to a future of new and interesting experiences. But it becomes a 'rightful liberation' once life is held to be no longer meaningful because it is filled with pain and inexorably doomed to even greater suffering. Furthermore, when he denies or neglects his fundamental relationship to God, man thinks he is his own rule and measure, with the right to demand that society should guarantee him the ways and means of deciding what to do with his life in full and complete autonomy. It is especially people in the developed countries who act in this way: they feel encouraged to do so also by the constant progress of medicine and its ever more advanced techniques. By using highly sophisticated systems and equipment, science and medical practice today are able not only to attend to cases formerly considered untreatable and to reduce or eliminate pain, but also to sustain and prolong life in situations of extreme frailty, to resuscitate artificially patients whose basic biological functions have undergone sudden collapse, and to use special procedures to make organs available for transplanting. In this context the temptation grows to have recourse to euthanasia, that is, to take control of death and bring it about before its time, 'gently' ending one's life or the life of others. In reality what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely is seen to be senseless and inhumane Here we are faced with one of the more alarming symptoms of the 'culture of death' which is advancing above all in prosperous societies, marked by an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency and which see the growing number of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome. These people are very often isolated by their families and society, which are organized almost exclusively on the basis of criteria of productive efficiency, according to which a hopelessly impaired life no longer has any value. For a correct moral judgement on euthanasia, in the first place a clear definition is required. Euthanasia in the strict sense is understood to be an action or ommission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering. 'Euthanasia's terms of reference, therefore, are to be found in the intention of the will and in the methods used.'" The Pope goes on to make the distinction that "to forego extraordinary or disproportionate means is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia; it rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death." He also notes: "Taking into account these distinctions, in harmony with the Magisterium of my Predecessors, and in communion with the bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church's tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magesterium. Depending on the circumstances, this practice involves the malice proper to suicide or murder." The tender care and love of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her sisters has always impressed me. They created the home for the dying in Calcutta and put into practice the principles we are discussing. Every human person has a dignity because they are created in the image and likeness of God. "It is I who bring death and life" (Dt 32:39) Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us! St. Jeanne Jugan, pray for us!