Pastor, Most Holy Trinity, East Hampton
You have most likely read or heard about Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old, newly married woman who was diagnosed with a malignant and inoperable brain cancer. She chose to end her life by a deliberate overdose of barbiturates prescribed by her doctor in Oregon, one of five states where assisted suicide is legal. She decided to make her choice public on social media and became part of a public campaign to influence acceptance of “death with dignity.”
Brittany’s story is a very sad one and we cannot but feel sorrow, not only for her, but for her husband and her family as well. But there are underlying values and assumptions here which need to be teased out and evaluated. Is suicide in this way really “death with dignity”? Is this an ethical decision which society should welcome and embrace? Clearly from a Catholic standpoint it is not. But why? Isn’t this just the Catholic Church standing in the way of progress and compassion once again? I think not, and here is why.
Life is a gift. It is infinitely precious and valuable. This is true whether we are born perfectly formed, incredibly talented and stunningly handsome, or whether we come into this world with some disability, whether physical, mental, or otherwise. We are God’s creation and each of us is a miracle.
That also means that we are not our own. As St. Paul says to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.” (1Co 6:19-20 NABre). And again in Romans: “For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” (Rom 14:8 NABre) That reality is something which secular culture does not understand and does not accept, yet it is a central part of our faith. It is more than just that God forbids suicide (which God does), but why God does: Because we are God’s; life is God’s gift. We—in all our imperfection—are an expression of God’s love.
Although I feel sympathy for Brittany I also recognize that this is part of a marketing effort organized by pro-suicide groups. Be attentive! Doctors, for the most part, do not want to be a part of this. It directly contradicts their calling to be healers. Nor is this a private matter; it has immediate social effects. But our highly individualized contemporary American culture doesn’t support that either. The libertarian view sees everyone as completely autonomous and given freedom not to be limited by anyone. That is not the Christian view. We belong to one another. We were made to be in community and fellowship. We are the body of Christ. The common good is a treasured part of our political and spiritual heritage. Extreme individualism is one of the poisoned pills our culture is handing out to us.
End of life issues—as also beginning of life issues—have been made more complex because of technology. Ethical reflection has a hard time keeping pace with new scientific capabilities. But Christian ethics insists always on the dignity of the human person. Catholic moral teaching has always held that we are not obliged to take extraordinary means to prolong life. Important advances in palliative care (keeping terminal patients pain-free) and the hospice movement have reduced the physical, psychological and spiritual pain of death and dying. Human life is not a consumer commodity to be thrown away when it is less than optimal. Death is part of life; not a taboo. Were we to think, feel, say or act as if there was no value or meaning to death, we would be abandoning Christ on the cross. Jesus “loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” (Jn 13:1 NABre) And that “end” was when he bowed his head on the cross and gave up his spirit.
Respect life. Pray for and visit the sick and suffering. Accompany the dying. Like Jesus, “love them till the end.”