Many people misunderstand the difference between relieving suffering, accelerating death and extraordinary means of preserving life. Let’s try to get this right. If the person is Catholic, the answer is straightforward. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II, invokes the authority of Peter and declares that it is always wrong to euthanize or abort a human being. Any Catholic who questions or challenges the authority of Peter to declare that something is always morally wrong places himself in a very dangerous position. It begs the question, how can one be Catholic, but ignore what Peter has authoritatively condemned as evil? This raises the discussion to a whole other level. The question is no longer about the subject of euthanasia, but about fidelity to the Church. Tonight, during compline, we sang “To Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign King.” If we apply Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, (the law of prayer is the law of faith), then the answer is simple. There is a verse in that hymn (prayer), “To you and to your Church great King, we pledge our heart’s oblation.” I cannot pledge oblation to Christ and not to the Church. Christ and the Church are inseparable. What Peter binds, remains bound by Christ himself until Peter unbinds it.
Catholic law does not bind Non-Catholics. This is a teaching of the Catholic Church. There are many reasons why they are not bound, but that’s a topic for another thread. However, natural law binds every created thing and being. Natural law commands that we do everything in our power to minimize and even eliminate human suffering. However, natural law also says that suffering is part of the definition of being alive. All living beings suffer, even plants. Suffering takes on different expressions for different life forms. However, there is no life form that does not suffer. Why not? Because suffering is built into the fabric of life. It is one of the many threads that hold life together.
Those who say that we are accelerating a person’s death to protect them from suffering are also protecting themselves. As human beings, we suffer when our loved ones suffer. The measure is not very altruistic. The issue is not whether we should or should not try to minimize suffering. The question on the table is whether we have the right to accelerate death. To take away life support that does no harm to the patient accelerates the patient’s death.
Human beings have two kinds of rights: civil rights and human rights. Under civil rights, the state has the duty to provide every person with the protection necessary to live until natural death. I have a right to expect the state to protect my right to live. When the state legislates that there are circumstances in which my death can be accelerated, even though I am not a threat to society, the state has overstepped its authority. The State exists to protect the citizen. When a democratic society, such as the USA, allows the State to pass legislation authorizing euthanasia, abortion and capital punishment, we are authorizing death by our vote. That is contrary to what the State should be doing and the citizens are voting contrary to the concept of democracy. No one ever said that democracy meant to do whatever one wishes to do. In fact, that kind of thinking is nihilistic. There have to be restraints in every civilized society.
Human beings also have human rights or natural rights. These are written into our very nature. Because we are human, we have the right to live as human beings, not as rocks. Human beings often have to suffer, because it’s unavoidable. To live with unavoidable suffering is part of being human. To accelerate death to avoid suffering is an attempt to do away with a part of our humanity. This raises a major ethical question. Where do we stop? What sufferings do we tolerate and what sufferings justify terminating a life or accelerating a death? Parents suffer because of the poor choices that their children make. The unemployed person suffers. The wife whose husband cheats on her suffers. The child who is struck by a bus and has to live in a wheelchair suffers. People with chronic pain suffer. We would have to make a list of what suffering is permissible and what suffering is not. When a person crosses over into suffering that we arbitrarily decide is not permissible, do we allow them to take their lives or accelerate his death?
The issue is not whether a person should die a natural death. The issue is this. It is natural for a person to have: food, water, oxygen, antibiotics, pain killers, love, companionship, and whatever else makes him comfortable while waiting for death. To take these away, when they are not contraindicated, knowingly and deliberately accelerates death.
Notice that I use the word “contraindicated.” Contraindicated is any form of care that will hurt the patient or that will cause the patient unnecessary stress. There are patients who cannot tolerate water, because it is painful. In that case, water is contraindicated. We should not cause pain unless there is a reasonable belief that it will heal. It’s like giving you a vaccine. Injections hurt and the flu shot often makes people very sick during the first 48 hours. To give water to such a patient is cruel. It is natural to withdraw the water. Why? Because it is natural to minimize the discomfort. Your intention is not to accelerate death.
There are times, when the intention may not be to accelerate death. There are times when the caregivers believe that certain supports are unnecessary, because the person is going to die, regardless. In those cases, one has to examine reality. We are all going to die. However, we don’t stop eating and drinking today, because death is going to catch-up with us. If more than one medical expert, independently, determines that the person will die within hours, regardless of what we do, there is no moral obligation to intervene. We can allow death to arrive naturally. In that case, we are not accelerating death. It’s going to happen in a few hours.
If there is no immediate danger of death or we are unable to say how long before death arrives, then we have another ethical quandary. We cannot accelerate it. Therefore, we must continue to provide life support, even though the person has a terminal condition. Terminal is not the same as imminent. I live with three terminal illnesses. Unless the brothers’ driving kills me first, one of these conditions or the complications will kill me. There are days, such as this week, when the pain has been so severe that I have missed morning mass and morning prayers. I have to take medications that knock me out and don’t let me get up on time. I still get up and go to my pregnancy centers and I still go to the parishes and preach on the Gospel of Life. The pain is excruciating. Nevertheless, I have a moral obligation to live for the sake of the vulnerable. I’m a social being. God created us as such. Therefore, I have a moral obligation to stay alive as long as I can, to fulfill my obligations to others. I have an obligation to be here for my brothers, primarily. I made vows to this community. I am a widowed parent and I have a secondary obligation to remain alive for my children. I have siblings and I have a moral obligation to remain in their lives. Life is not about me. Those who advocate that life be about the individual are advocating something that is contrary to natural law. Human beings are not islands.
Whether one is a Catholic or an atheist, the rules are the same; because Catholic moral teaching is based on four legs and one of them is natural law. We must live and die as human beings live and die. We cannot redefine humanity or natural law, because we have no jurisdiction over natural law. We must work with natural law. When natural law allows us to find means to alleviate suffering without terminating life, then we have a duty to use what is available to us. Natural law does not say that human beings terminate their lives or accelerate their deaths. Human beings made that up. It is in natural law that any living being fight for his life until death wins out. If we accept euthanasia, abortion, assisted suicide, then why not accept the extinction of the human species or any other species? We fight to save endangered animals of the lower species, but we easily give up on an endangered human being in the name of relief from suffering.