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Death with dignity: two radically different perspectives

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The U.S. Bishops recently issued a statement on physician assisted suicide, "To Live Each Day with Dignity," which stands in dramatic contrast to the aggressive nationwide campaign by some who want to expedite a radical change in our attitude toward participation in another's death at their own request.

Through the use of verbal engineering, the proponents of assisted suicide have replaced the words "assisted suicide" with "aid in dying" to confuse and thus convince us that this is a good thing. Using deceptive language to bring about a desired end is not new. Many years ago there appeared in the same newspaper stories of two women requiring identical medical treatment.

One was 92-year-old Mary Heir: Mary lived in a mental hospital for many years and received her food through a gastrostomy tube (g-tube). When the tube became dislodged, her guardian petitioned the court to authorize that the tube NOT be replaced. The court agreed, saying that re-implanting the tube was "highly intrusive and highly risky."

The other patient was a 94-year-old woman who was undergoing "minor surgery" to correct a nutritional problem. She was to receive the surgery on an outpatient basis under local anesthesia. The woman's name? Rose Kennedy. The minor surgery? Insertion of a g-tube.

One life was considered expendable, the other valuable.

Our medical judgments on issues of life and death are very quickly being replaced by value judgments.

Medical judgment means the body is shutting down during the natural dying process, the patient is unable to receive food and fluid without harm, so food and fluid are stopped.

Value judgment means a person is not dying, but viewed as having an unacceptably low quality of life, imposing a burden on others, and is deliberately killed by dehydration and starvation.

Jewish and Christian moral traditions have long rejected the idea of assisting in another's suicide. To assist another's suicide is to take part in "an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested." (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae No. 66)

Can prolonged pain legitimatize a request for death? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (05/05/1980) tells us "no." While the guilt of the individual may be reduced, the conscience is still in error and this does not change the nature of this act of killing.

Psychological disturbance and diminished responsibility are also true of people who attempt suicide during serious illness. Their worst suffering is not physical, but feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The realization that others or society as a whole may see their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems can only magnify their suffering.

Many think that when the chance of recovery is gone we can go ahead and bring about death. John Paul II says "No": "Even then our life has purpose and we still must die in God's time and not our own."

The claim of a constitutional right to assisted suicide was firmly rejected in 1997 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld state laws against the practice as legitimate safeguards for innocent human life and the ethical integrity of medicine.

Nevertheless, three states have decided that this is the path they will take for the future: Oregon, Washington and Montana. They follow in the footsteps of countries like the Netherlands who have now moved on to taking the lives of adults who never asked to die and newborn children who have no choice in the matter -- lives that have been determined as meaningless or as a costly burden on the community.

When we fail to protect the most vulnerable, we fail not only as Christians but as Americans. The government fails to fulfill the primary purpose of its existence: "The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of true government." (Thomas Jefferson)

The U.S. bishops conclude their most recent statement on this subject by saying, "One cannot uphold human freedom and dignity by devaluing human life. A society that devalues some people's lives by hastening and facilitating their deaths will ultimately lose respect for their other rights and freedom."

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2280) says: "It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life... It is not ours to dispose of."

Comments from readers

Elaine M. Syfert - 07/11/2011 12:15 PM
Thank you Joan for continuing protect human life from beginning until the Lord designs. I am amazed at the amount of catholics that don't realized this concept. We need to continue educating our people, we cannot expect the world out there to understand and respect life if our own practising catholics don't know it. Good to see you still active, I still remember our good times at the old FEC. Love, Elaine M. Syfert

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