Even for a people with faith in a happier afterlife, the idea of suffering a slow and painful death or watching a loved one endure one is, frankly, abhorrent. There’s a good reason death is sometimes called “merciful.”
So it’s no surprise that for many in the face of terminal illness, it feels like a temptation rooted in mercy to hasten death.
But recent events show the danger of such sentiments when they are severed from respect for the dignity of every human life. As Father Smith in Walker Percy’s prescient novel “The Thanatos Syndrome” remarks, “More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all the other centuries put together.”
A case in point is Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the infamous “Dr. Death,” who passed away — naturally — this month at the age of 83. Although he portrayed himself, falsely, as a crusader for the “last civil right” — or helping the terminally ill end their misery — an investigation found that 60 percent of his “patients” were not suffering from terminal illness.
Last month, federal agents raided the Southern California home of 91-year-old great-grandmother Sharlotte Hydorn after a depressed, but otherwise healthy, 29-year-old Oregon man used one of her mail-order suicide kits.
People like Kevorkian and Hydorn play on the “tenderness” angle to go a whole lot further: to assert the right of a suicidal person — any suicidal person — to be helped to death. Instead, we need to see in such suffering souls a cry for help and for human accompaniment in their suffering.
But that still leaves the problem of the truly hard cases: terminal illness, unavoidable pain. Three states — Washington, Oregon and Montana — contemplate some form of physician-assisted suicide, and there are continued legislative pushes in other states. While our nation grapples with health care reform, it also will be necessary to resist attempts to cut costs by reducing benefits for the terminally or seriously ill.
The U.S. bishops, with good timing, decided to take up the issue of assisted suicide at their spring meeting this month.
According to a bishops’ conference news release, the draft statement notes that “physician-assisted suicide does not promote compassion because its focus is not on eliminating suffering, but on eliminating the patient. True compassion ... dedicates itself to meeting patients’ needs and presupposes a commitment to their equal worth.”
The statement also notes that making physician-assisted suicide generally acceptable has concerning side effects: It puts pressure on sick patients who know society has “officially declared the suicides of certain people to be good and acceptable,” and experience shows, as in the Netherlands, that “voluntary assisted suicide has led to involuntary euthanasia.”
Pope Benedict XVI has called assistance to the dying one of the great needs of our time and even called for a sort of company-enacted “dying leave,” like maternity leave, so workers can spend time with close loved ones who are dying.
“We know only too well: The endurance of suffering can upset life’s most stable equilibrium, it can shake the firmest foundations of confidence, and sometimes even leads people to despair of the meaning and value of life,” the pope said.
At times like that, it is not a plastic bag over the head, or a sodium pentobarbital dose, or a pillow over the face, that the terminally ill need. Instead, our model should be that of Mother Teresa, whose prayerful and tender presence accompanied the dying and paid honor to their human dignity.