Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
On Feb. 6, the Canadian Supreme Court, in a unanimous 9-0 decision, made it legal nationwide for doctors to end the lives of terminally ill patients. No doubt this decision, taken by our close neighbors, will give added impetus to the movement in this country to legalize ending the lives of those in pain or suffering. At the present time, there are five states that allow physician-assisted suicide.
Legislators in Vermont and judges in Montana and New Mexico have authorized suicide on demand. And, citizens in Oregon and Washington have voted for it. Now, lawmakers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, the District of Columbia and New Jersey are currently considering legislation to help people end their own lives.
Assisted-suicide laws in the United States permit aiding those who want to die if they are critically ill and have six months or less to live. The law requires patients to administer the lethal medication themselves. In the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg, the laws authorizing medically assisted death are less restrictive. They allow the physicians to prescribe and administer lethal drugs. There are no conditions on how much longer the patient is expected to live. In fact, the condition of a terminal illness is not even required.
In deciding whether to continue living in the face of suffering and pain, the determining factor has become the elusive notion of “the quality of life.” In practical terms, “quality of life” means the capacity of an individual to enjoy the pleasures of life, to interact with others and to be aware of the choices to be made. Thus, when a person comes to that point in life when he or she no longer is conscious, can no longer enjoy even the basics of eating and drinking and is suffering, many judge that it becomes permissible to end that life.
No life escapes suffering in one form or another. Insisting on the quality of life as the determining factor in the decision to live or die ultimately stems from the inability to accept suffering. For some, suffering is useless, senseless. And, the ultimate suffering is the wrenching of the body and soul apart in death. Where there is no belief in God, death has no meaning nor does any suffering. If death is the end, why prolong dying in pain?
However, for those who have faith in God, the response to suffering is not that facile. God values human life. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The human person is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” (CCC, 1703). Created by God, we have a transcendent worth that comes from our Creator. Our worth is not determined by our physical condition at any particular moment.
Suffering is certainly not to be sought in itself. But, when inescapable suffering comes into our lives, we are called to face it not only with courage, but with faith. By accepting the suffering of the Cross, Jesus redeemed the entire world. He also redeemed suffering itself, giving it a meaning beyond emotional and physical pain. In the mysterious wisdom of God, our suffering united with Christ Crucified becomes redemptive and brings benefit to others. As Paul so boldly confesses, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Col 1:24).
The ease with which countries, including the United States, are moving to a wider and wider acceptance and promotion of ending people’s lives is frightening. Western civilization has become detached from its Judaeo-Christian roots. And the effect is the collapse of morality. “Compassionate care.” “Aid to the terminally ill.” “Death with dignity.” These slogans of “mercy” mask the real issue: the rejection of the Christian meaning of life itself.