Our society is very fond of euphemisms. We like to wrap up difficult ideas and realities with words that make us feel warm and fuzzy, or at least distract us from the real meaning behind the word or phrase we are using. Phrases like pass away, friendly fire, and letting someone go, litter our vocabulary. We don't even notice that we are stepping back from the truth when we use phrases like this because it is so common.
Last week, one of the sisters at the convent where I live gave a presentation to the women in formation about the Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act, which will be on the ballots in November 2012. The Death with Dignity Act will allow doctors in the state of Massachusetts to prescribe a lethal dose of prescription sleeping pills for people who are terminally ill and want to take their life.
If you do not live in Massachusetts, never fear. The Hemlock Society or, excuse me again with the euphemisms, the organization now known as Compassion and Choices, is working to ensure that referendums like this will be coming to a state near you.
Unfortunately, 60% of Massachusetts voters plan to vote for the ballot initiative. This is not surprising, as we live in a society where our main moral maxim is "I can do what I please," with the usual addendum - as long as I don't "hurt" anyone else, (hurt being a very subjective term).
However, whether or not you think a person has a right to kill himself or not, the question is whether the state should be involved in assisting someone to commit suicide. Even if you support a person's right to end their life, it is clear that simply from a logical and practical standpoint, suicide is not something we want to become socially acceptable and, in some cases, even encouraged by our government.
Let's look at Oregon, where physician assisted suicide has been legal since 1997. While the suicide rate was on the decline in the state in the 90s, almost fifteen years later Oregon has a suicide rate that is 35% higher than the national average and it keeps climbing. There were 566 suicides in 2008, 641 in 2009, and 670 in 2010. Is it possible that saying suicide is a permissible and socially acceptable way to end one's life for one reason helps make suicide overall a more accepted and widely used solution to all of life's problems?
Which leads to another question: what is the criteria that would allow someone to end their life and how do we know this criteria will not expand, and the methods change until we have slid down the slippery slope of assisted suicide to euthanasia? Is it such a leap from helping people to commit suicide to giving doctors or the government the power to decide when people's lives have lost value or are no longer worth the financial cost? Sound paranoid? Disability rights groups don't think so. And neither do the people in Oregon who received letters from their government insurance telling them they would not pay for costly drugs to lengthen their life but they would be willing to pay for them to kill themselves.
There is also the problem of people killing themselves because they feel pressured to do so. 4% of those who have participated in state sponsored suicide in Oregon gave financial reasons as their primary purpose for killing themselves. We are one of the richest countries in the world and our government is helping citizens to kill themselves because they are a financial burden for their families. What kind of message does this send to our society about the value and dignity of human life?
Others will no doubt receive a misdiagnosis, the doctor may tell a patient they have very little time to live when in reality they have many years left. People will certainly die under the misconception that they have very little time to live and in the stress and sadness of what they do not know is a misdiagnosis, they will choose to die rather than live.
The practical arguments against assisted suicide go on and on.
But, aside from all of the very serious practical issues that laws like these can give rise to in a society, for me there is a more fundamental point of concern at hand.
When I was in college I was an avid animal rights activist. I volunteered for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) one summer and was the president of the Animal Liberation Collective at my college, (which should provide adequate credentials for those skeptical of my claim). When I considered animal euthanasia, I always agreed that animals should be, pardon the euphemism, "put to sleep" when they are in pain or seriously ill. I did not, at the time, think the same logic applied to humans and I was not sure why I made this distinction. In my worldview then, humans were simply animals that happened to be more intelligent and higher on the food chain.
Now that I am Catholic I understand why I felt this way.
Suffering for animals is useless. This is why when we see animals suffering we feel for them deeply. They do not have the capacity to make anything of their suffering. Their suffering does not make them better animals, as our suffering can make us more fully human. And I would argue that it is not their lesser intellectual capacity that makes animals unable to reap any fruit from their suffering. Rather, it is something uniquely human that makes us able to grow and become wiser through our suffering.
As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe Salvi:
To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves - these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.
Of course, it is part of our duty as Christians to alleviate suffering in the world and to combat injustice. However, our modern society takes this truth and runs too far, wanting to eliminate any kind of physical and psychological pain at any cost. We lose sight of what is ethical in the blind scramble to avoid pain. Abortion is acceptable because we cannot force a woman to endure the suffering of bringing a baby to term. Assisted suicide is acceptable because we must not allow anyone to go through the pain of losing autonomy or enduring chronic pain. In saying this, I am not diminishing the pain that people experience in these situations, I am simply saying that as a society, we cannot compromise what we know to be right and wrong to take away another's pain - no matter how much we would like to.
So this is the most tragic element of this trend of thought in our society that is evident in initiatives like "Death with Dignity." When we lose a sense of our humanity, we begin to lose a sense of what makes us more fully human. It may sound masochistic to the non-Catholics out there but God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to make the evil of suffering, a vehicle for grace, beauty and transformation in our lives. If we, as a society, do all that we can to avoid suffering, we may avoid pain but we also avoid the opportunity to grow more deeply in the school of love. Some might think this is useless if a person's life is going to end anyway, but so much transformation can happen in one minute, one hour, one day. We never know what we are cutting short by choosing the hour of our death.
So, let us fight this culture of death. Let us be prophets of the dignity and beauty of human life in all of its stages, the beginning and the very end. Please spread the word about this ballot initiative in Massachusetts and the many more that will be coming to other states. And please pray that this law is not passed in the state of Massachusetts in November.
Peace to everyone.