Every year about 8 million dogs and cats are brought to shelters in the United States. They face either adoption or death. According to the American Humane Society, less than 40% are adopted. Each year, 500,000 of those put to death had owners who predeceased them and the animals were no longer wanted. But the scene is changing. Recently
The New York Times
reported that 27 states have laws allowing people to establish legal trusts for their animals. Pets now can be looked after even when they are predeceased by their owner. Owners get to say in advance how they want their pets treated. One caring soul set up a trust so that her dog would not suffer a change in diet -- barbecue chicken in the morning and grilled ribs at night. A pet can even inherit money.
Legal protection to protect animals is growing. Not long ago, the
in Barre, Vermont, carried the story about Christian De Neergaard. This farmer was accused of starving his cows to death.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
, an animal rights group, called for him to be imprisoned. After pleading guilty, Christian DeNeergaard received a suspended one-year sentence as well as 30 days of work crew. While the courts in Vermont were concerned about not starving cows, at the very same time, other courts were denying nutrition and hydration to Terri Schiavo.
Recently a man in England won a great victory for the protection of human life, his own human life. Leslie Burke has a degenerative brain condition. He suffers from cerebellar ataxia. Eventually he will be unable to eat or drink, and will need to receive food and water by artificial means. He rightly feared doctors could withdraw food and drink against his wishes when he can no longer speak. And so he went to court. Burke challenged the guidelines of England’s General Medical Council, ‘Withholding and Withdrawing Life-prolonging Treatments: Good Practice in Decision Making’. He made his case for his rights to food and drink on the basis of Articles 2, 3, 6, 8 and 14 of the European Convention for the protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. He won his case.
But now the General Medical Council is appealing the decision. And England’s Health Department is supporting the appeal against last year's ruling. Very telling was the comment made by a lawyer for the British health secretary. The lawyer told the appeal court that the National Health Service should not have to give life-prolonging treatment to every patient who requests it because that would mean a crippling waste of resources (
May 18, 2005). How sad! Our greatest resource is the human person.
Solid, ethical values that respect and support human life predate the Christian faith. Coming from 5 centuries before Christ, the Hippocratic Oath is one of the oldest binding documents in history. Written in antiquity, its principles are modern and sacred: to treat the sick to the best of one's ability, to preserve patient privacy, to care for patients and to do nothing to harm them or cause their death. The oath demands respect for life and making sacrifices in caring for sick people. It pays attention to personal factors: self-control, dignity, reserve.
Under the title of "Illustrissimi," Pope John Paul I wrote an imaginary letter to Hippocrates, a contemporary of Socrates. The Pope spoke of the Greek physician as "the author of a famous oath...of an ethical code of unending worth.” Even today doctors swear by this oath to prescribe suitable treatment for their patients. They pledge to care for their patients. In his teaching on the value of human life, Pope John Paul II referred to the "ancient and ever relevant Oath of Hippocrates, according to which every medical doctor is called upon to be committed to absolute respect for human life and its sacredness”(
The Vatican Library houses an unusual medieval manuscript. The document contains the Hippocratic Oath transcribed in Greek in the form of a cross. On July 7, 1999, Cardinal Angelini, then President of Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, remarked, “Nobody had ever sought to put a cross…on the works by Aristotle-works which even such an outstanding theologian as Thomas Aquinas adjudged precursors of Christian thought. Nor had anyone ever sought to do likewise with the works of Cicero, a figure whom Tertullian called
‘anima naturaliter christiana.’
But such an act was performed by an enlightened medieval scribe.” The Hippocratic Oath in the form of a cross. What a profound truth we can infer from this! There is an undisputed continuity between the content of the Hippocratic Oath and the Cross. This continuity lies in the value of all human life, in a shared commitment to promote and to defend, to cherish and to care for human life from its conception to its natural ending.
Where suffering and pain and death are acknowledged and understood in their human and Christian meaning, the sick and dying will find comfort in their pain and dignity in their frailty of mind and body. Illness and suffering are not experiences only about our body, but all that we are in our entirety, as body and soul. Jesus not only went about doing good, but he gave his disciples “authority over unclean spirits with power to cast them out and to cure all kinds of diseases and sickness’ (Mt 10:1). Greater than a cure of the body will always be the healing of the soul from the evil of sin and lack of love. Our victories over sickness and death last but a moment. But our triumph over selfishness through patient care of others lasts forever.
Human life is sacred to God. Jesus once said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Mt 10:29-30). Are we not worth more protection from our courts than even a cow?