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Death With Dignity?

Tim Staples

With the passing of ABx2-15, the “physician-assisted suicide bill” signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown Oct. 5, 2015, California became the fifth state in the U.S. to legalize physician-assisted suicide, along with Oregon, Vermont, Washington State, and Montana.

Let’s see: “no fault” divorce, abortion, homosexual “marriage,” trafficking in human baby “parts,” experimenting on human embryos, legalized drugs, prostitution, etc. Just another day in the “land of the free,and the home of the brave,” right?

Oh, I forgot to mention the good news: Planned Parenthood now says (emphasis on says) it is not going to charge money for the babies it murders, slices up, and sends out for parts.

And this is supposed to be the answer that solves things?

Legalized immorality seems to be coming at us in tidal waves. I have reached the point where, every day I look at the Drudge Report or turn on the news, I dread seeing who is going to be targeted for death next. Or what kind of immorality is going to be defended as a “human right.” The words of Pope Francis are becoming more and more prophetic:

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. . . . And you have to start from the ground up.

We have a culture careening out of control morally and spiritually. There has never been a time in our lifetime where there has been a greater need for each and every one of us to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a people who are genuinely lost and in need of our Lord and Savior. As necessary as engaging in the public square with regard to all of these matters (and more) is, the saving of our crumbling empire will ultimately be accomplished—if it will be accomplished—one soul at a time.

Engaging in the Public Square

As powerful and prophetic as Pope Francis’s words are, unfortunately, some have taken them out of context to mean we should be silent with regard to the most important moral matters of our day. Nothing could be further from the truth. We must engage in all of these discussions, regardless of whether we are lambasted or worse. Lives are on the line here. Souls are on the line here.

And when it gets right down to it, the arguments for the truth of these matters are really simple. One does not have to be a lettered theologian or philosopher to know it’s wrong to kill your neighbor, whether you’re in the process of robbing a bank or “caring” for a patient. And yet these arguments have to be made in the midst of a culture that is losing its collective ability to reason.

In this post I want to tackle the latest issue to hit the news cycles: physician-assisted suicide, along with euthanasia, which are both species of the fifth commandment: thou shalt not murder. These are two among many sins that come under this commandment, the major categories being murder, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.

I am going to focus on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in this post, because we are finding the same arguments employed to attempt to justify both of these grave evils. The difference, of course, is a person is “euthanized” by someone else. He kills himself when committing “suicide.”

These two are particularly closely related because the lines are blurred between them. For example, when we speak of physician-assisted suicide, the physician and others enabling the victim are also formally involved in the murder on a par with those who euthanize their victim. And again, because both are forms of murder, those defending these practices make similar arguments to which we must be ready to respond.

Physician-assisted suicide

It is difficult to put into words the depravity involved in approaching a poor, suffering soul and offering him the opportunity to simply sign a document that promises to eliminate all of his pain. “Just sign here and you will pleasantly fall asleep and never wake up. We will arrange everything.”

How nice!

As an aside: have you noticed how the proponents of death are using fewer and fewer euphemisms to disguise their evil intentions as the culture becomes more and more depraved? The culture of death is in full bloom, folks.

St. Therese of Lisieux, a doctor of the Church who evidently experienced some sort of temptation toward the taking of her own life on her deathbed, urged her sister-nurse never to “leave near them [meaning her patients] any medicines that are poisonous” and that “I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one could easily poison oneself.” If a saint and doctor of the Church would say this from her experience of terrible pain, how many people will give in to the temptation when they are aided by the very people who should be agents of life and healing?

The Major Issues at Hand

1. Suicide, in and of itself, is always gravely sinful. CCC 2280-81:

Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

Thus, to commit suicide is to take an innocent life that is not any human person’s to take. Even though the life taken is a person’s “own;” a human person is a “steward” of that life, not the “owner,” in a strict sense. But having said that, we should also consider CCC 2283:

We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

In other words, we leave the judging of these to God, but we never fail to say that suicide is grave matter for both the one who kills himself and the one who would assist. Both commit a gravely disordered act on the objective level. We leave the matter of culpability to God.

2. Euthanasia: Even though there are no laws yet on the books that have legalized euthanasia in the United States, it is effectively carried out routinely as we will see below. And given our present trajectory, one has to wonder how long until this grave evil is codified in law as well.
CCC 2277 declares:

Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.

Thus an act or omission which, of itself, or by intention causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God his creator.

One can readily see the same “culture of death” mentality that would say we must rid ourselves of pre-born babies because they are an inconvenience leading to “euthanasia”—getting rid of a “burden” cloaked in compassion.

Now, there is no doubt that euthanasia can be the result of a genuinely misguided sense of compassion, but as the Catechism says, no matter what the motives, we are talking about murder.

Let’s Be Clear

Opposition to euthanasia does not mean one has to use every possible means available to keep people alive at all times. CCC 2278 says:

Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s ability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

We should also note here that one can give palliative care to someone who is in terrible pain, even if that medicine may well shorten their lifespan, as long as one is not willing death as either an end or means. If one is simply trying to alleviate pain in the context of having accepted that death is unavoidable, this can be an act of charity.

The key here is to note that any act or omission which of itself or by intention causes death is murder. Period. That is the essence of the matter when considering either physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia.

How Far Have We Fallen

I remember just a relatively few years ago, twenty or so when it comes to physician-assisted suicide, a decade or so ago when it comes to euthanasia, people used to say, “That will never happen in the United States of America!” We who warned Roe v. Wade would eventually lead to all of this and more were called “extremists.”

Unbelievably, we all watched a clear case of euthanasia basically presented on live TV in the case of Terri Schiavo, on March 18, 2005, when her feeding tube was finally removed. The media did not show her actual death from starvation 13 days later on March 31, 2005, but we saw all that led up it. Gee! I wonder why they didn’t allow the world to see her actual death?

Perhaps the same reason why Hitler did not want the extermination of Jews to be shown in the local movie theatres in Berlin? Hint: it has nothing to do with preserving anyone’s “dignity.” It is all about keeping people in the dark as to the barbarity of these acts.

Here was a woman who was starved to death before the entire world! Today, it happens on a regular basis. This is what happens when human beings are reduced to the level of animals that can be used up and thrown away at will. Our prophetic Pope Francis calls it a “throw-away culture.” Pope St. John Paul II called it a “culture of death.” Both are discriptors of just how far we have fallen.

Some will ask at this point? But wasn’t Terri Shiavo receiving nutrition and hydration through a feeding tube? Isn’t this a case of “extraordinary means” that are not required to be used? The answer is no! There is a difference between using “extraordinary means” to keep someone alive beyond what can be reasonably seen to be their time to die and using “out of the ordinary” means to give someone what is their right, i.e., food and water.

On March 20, 2004, near the end of the Rome conference on the “vegetative” state, Pope St. John Paul II delivered a very important message reaffirming and clarifying our moral obligation to provide normal care to patients who are commonly referred to as being in a “persistent vegetative state.” The Holy Father made five key points:

1. No living human being ever descends to the status of a “vegetable” or an animal. “Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition of a ‘vegetative state’ retain their human dignity in all its fullness,” he said. ”The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help.” He spoke against what he called a “quality of life” criterion used to decide who lives and who dies that would make discriminatory judgments about the worthiness of different people’s lives. The Church insists that “the value of a man’s life cannot be made subordinate to any judgment of its quality expressed by other men.”

2. Because this life has inherent dignity, regardless of its visible “quality,” it calls out to us for the normal care owed to all helpless patients. In principle, food and fluids (even if medically assisted, as in tube feeding) are part of that normal care. Such feeding, he said, is “a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act.” This means, among other things, that the key question here is simply whether food and fluids effectively provide nourishment and preserve life, not whether they can reverse the patient’s illness. Even incurable patients have a right to basic care.

3. This judgment does not change when the ”vegetative” state is diagnosed as “persistent” or unlikely to change: “The evaluation of probabilities, founded on      waning hopes for recovery when the vegetative state is prolonged beyond a year, cannot ethically justify the cessation or interruption of minimal care for the patient, including nutrition and hydration.”

4. Deliberate withdrawal of food and fluids to produce a premature death can be a form of euthanasia, that is, unjust killing. “Death by starvation or dehydration is, in fact, the only possible outcome as a result of their withdrawal. In this sense it ends up becoming, if done knowingly and willingly, true and proper euthanasia by omission.”

5. The Church’s traditional teaching, that one is not obliged to impose useless or excessively burdensome treatments on patients, remains valid. The obligation to provide assisted feeding lasts only as long as such feeding meets its goals of providing nourishment and alleviating suffering.

Thus, we must conclude as Catholics that every human person has a right to nutrition and hydration as long as the food and fluids effectively provide nourishment and preserve life. When the body permanently loses its ability to metabolize food and use water to hydrate itself, the food and fluids can actually become a cause of harm to the person rather than a cause of health and vitality. This seems to be a built-in way of the body to say it is time to move on to eternity.

Extraordinary Means

So how do we distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary means?

“Extraordinary means” of keeping people alive would be, for example, using a ventilator and other means of sustaining the bodily functions of someone who is clinically dead. In this case, you are simply keeping a body functioning when the person has already died. If it is determined that you have the irreversible cessation of all the vital activity of the brain, for example, meaning both the cerebral hemispheres and the brain stem are no longer functioning and you have the loss of the function of the brain cells, the person is dead. The body of this person does not have to be kept alive.

Or, we could consider the case of resuscitating someone who is terminally ill and in terrible pain. The decision “not to resuscitate” in these cases or to refuse “over-zealous treatment” as the Catechism said it, should be made by the person or if he cannot do so, the family of the person who is dying, in consultation with orthodox experts in medical bioethics. We are very blessed today to be able to make a phone call and get such an expert on the other end of the phone with the advent or an organization like “The National Bioethics Center,” in Philadelphia, PA. But again, any act that directly wills or causes the death of the person is euthanasia (murder). If one removes the artificial means that is keeping the body alive of one who is dead, the act of removing the artificial means is obviously not the cause of death. And that is what is crucial here.

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