Friday, June 03, 2011

Jack Kevorkian's death from a Catholic perspective

I wrote about Jack Kevorkian a little over a year ago after a biopic movie was released starring Al Pacino. Here is what I wrote.

Now Kevorkian is dead, not by suicide, but by natural causes. It is always sad when someone dies, no matter what that person chose to do during their lifetime.

Unfortunately, Jack Kevorkian chose to help people end their own lives, which is contrary to human dignity. It also goes against our instincts. If a friend called up and said they were suicidal, our first reaction would be to help that person get through their problem, not to encourage them to commit suicide.

Euthanasia is forbidden in Catholic teaching, for it contravenes the commandment of thou shall not murder. Here is the explanation from the catechism:


2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.

Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

2279 Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.

Many countries and areas are now pushing for the legal right of people to kill themselves or have doctors or others help them. Many frame this as a "right to die". It is imagined that some people, with full clarity and freedom decide that they would prefer not to live and so who are we to contravene their desires.

Well, the reality is usually much different. Many older people feel like a burden already because they are not contributing financially. Family members often speak about them in the third person even when they are in the room, especially if they are impaired in some way. Some people will make cruel comments, perhaps not realizing their impact. They will talk about how much work it is to care for this older person, where they will go when they cannot be cared for at home, etc. Some will even go so far as to discuss inheritance when that individual dies. They might even talk about funeral arrangements.

I have seen myself people become very frustrated as older people enter the last stage of their lives. They get annoyed by how the older person is acting or speaking and they do not attempt to hide their annoyance at all.

Now we want to introduce assisted suicide. Already feeling like a burden and worthless, many older people will readily accept assisted suicide when the option is presented. Many will probably be coerced into the situation.

It is easy to imagine suicide being presented as the loving option. "Hi grandma, we all know you're in a lot of pain, and the medical bills are really expensive. We are not going to tell you what to do, but we just want to let you know all your options. One of the options is to have a doctor help you pass on with dignity in the way you choose. We can have a living funeral, where you can say goodbye to all your family and friends, and everyone will be here with you when you make that decision. You've done so much over the years and this might be the right time for you. I don't think you want to drag this out any longer. You're already in pain and the medical bills are just piling up. I'm sure you don't want to burden anyone else with that. So grandma, like I said, no one is going to pressure you into anything. It's totally up to you. But we'll be here when you make that decision."

Of course, the scenario presented there is probably a lot nicer than many that are conceivable. Saying those things would certainly not be illegal, and even if someone is coerced into ending their life, who will vouch for that?

The pain argument is also sometimes presented, however this is not a good argument. The reason is that virtually any pain can be controlled with modern technology and medicine. In Catholic teaching, pain medication can be administered even if it is so strong that it could potentially kill the person. That's because the intended effect is to end suffering which is a good thing, but the unintended side effect is the death of the person, therefore because of the law of double-effect, it can be justified. This would of course mean that killing the person could not be the primary motivator or any motivator for that matter. The death must be an unintended secondary effect.

In order to build a Culture of Life, we must respect the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until natural death, and we must never prematurely take an innocent life.

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