The dignity of life

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Last week, a family member posted a June 6 CNN article on Facebook: “My friend chose an assisted death in Switzerland. Her dying wish was to tell you why.”

Long story short, a woman who had suffered several painful, chronic illnesses for much of her adult life decided to go to Switzerland to legally kill herself. She shared the journey with her friend, the reporter Ryan Prior.

The story was touching. Painful. The kind of piece that draws in the compassionate reader. The subject was presented as courageous in choosing her own death, unnecessarily suffering from the long journey to Switzerland: “For her, the gentle, peaceful death she prayed for was simply unlawful in Tennessee.”

As I am reading the piece, my first thought is that I sympathize with this woman. I feel for her. I pray for her. But my second thought is, why didn’t she simply take a bottle of aspirin at home in Tennessee? The legal consequences would not have concerned her. Or, had she waited longer, would she not have had that gentle, peaceful death at home?
The answer is, of course, political. She used her death as a tool, and the reporter used her story. This is not unbiased journalism.

This is an example, a very sad one, of how political persuasion works. Unwary, compassionate readers will be drawn in by the story. Although they may be ideologically opposed to euthanasia, the pathos of the situation will make them question their beliefs – why is it so wrong? Why should this woman suffer unnecessarily, when she is already so near death?

Then, if this becomes a trendy issue, they will be constantly pummeled by such stories, until they cannot remember why they believe euthanasia is wrong. Moral voices will not speak loudly enough to cut through the secular clamor. We’ve seen it all before: “Love is love. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to marry?” “It’s a woman’s own body. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to choose?”

The article also contained the usual linchpin – a quote from a celebrated religious figure, in this case the South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu – giving unexpected approval, and there you have it. The convictions of people who once objected on moral grounds will slowly begin to erode, as the numbers of faithful erode, and the tides of public opinion will turn. Soon it will be just another platform issue, a regular on the dropdown list on candidates’ websites.

Why should we stand fast against this? As Catholics, we believe in the dignity of human life, from conception to natural death. We believe in heeding God’s commandments, as in the fifth: Thou shalt not kill. We believe in the wisdom of Pope Francis when he calls euthanasia “false compassion” and tells medical professionals to reject the “temptation” of assisted suicide.

But times are changing, and holding onto our beliefs will become more difficult. The views of a growing number of atheists and “nones” will override traditional Christian views, as they have already in left-leaning politics and popular culture, and progressive-minded Catholics will continue to find themselves ignored or, ultimately, politically homeless.

The greatest challenge is, perhaps, that atheists and agnostics don’t have any moral reason to object to assisted suicide. If there is nothing after this life, and no greater moral authority to whom we answer, why shouldn’t we terminate life when it becomes too uncomfortable? After all, we’ve been doing it for decades via abortion.

One reason is the slippery slope of government. Canada has permitted MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying) only since 2016 – but already hospices who don’t provide euthanasia services are losing their funding (as many have noted, euthanasia and hospice are not compatible, and hospice is far more expensive), and here are a couple of chilling sentences, couched in detached medical language, from the abstract of a 2018 paper on euthanizing children: “We propose that an opportunity exists for MAID-providing institutions to reduce social stigma surrounding this practice, but not without potentially serious consequences for practitioners and institutions themselves. Thus, this paper is intended as a road map through the still-emerging legal and ethical landscape of paediatric MAID.” (DeMichelis, Zlotnik Shaul, Rapoport, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30242079/)

I thought of how to respond to my family member’s Facebook post. Ultimately I decided social media wasn’t the proper place to do it. I’ll speak to her about it instead.

I will say that once human dignity is lost – the moment a culture fails to value life – it is that moment that police officers who have vowed to protect their community will become criminals complicit in murder; gang members will indiscriminately kill each other, innocent passers-by and children; genocide will be perpetrated against unwanted populations; rioters will bring death and destruction even as they protest injustice; and even the most educated and respected among us will rationally and dispassionately (and self-interestedly) discuss how to end the lives of children who, as doctors know from their training, cannot possibly have the mental development to consent to their own deaths.

Nothing about our fellow human beings – not their race or infirmity or disability, gender, nationality, religion, age, lack of self-sufficiency, criminal history or any other facet of human identity – must shake our firm belief in the sacredness of life. We must speak life and uphold life, even when our voices are drowned out, because that is what God has commanded us to do.

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