Msgr. David Q. Liptak
The Hemlock Society is no longer known by this name, doubtless because someone in the organization discovered that the Greek philosopher Socrates adamantly refused to directly take his own life. God alone, he argued, is the master of death and life.
His being forced to drink the hemlock was rather a form of execution and his death remains one of the greatest tragedies in Western history. So now we have new names for the Society, and its relatives, names like "Compassion" or "Comfort" or "Care." Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide simply cannot be described for what they are: the taking of innocent human life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing an earlier Magisterial document, reads: "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…" (No. 2277)
Socrates, relying on reason, profoundly arrived at the same conclusion during the fourth century B.C.
In an effort to help more and more reasonable people to arrive at an acceptance of solid ethical norms about euthanasia in general, writer Eric Pavlat offers a series of strategies for dialogue in the April issue of Crisis magazine. His article merits emphasis.
The first suggestion is to "oppose the status quo of end-of-life pain management." If it is true that contemporary palliative care methodologies can mitigate pain in all but extremely rare instances, the right to pain alleviation ought to be viewed strictly as a patient’s right. This may sound like defending the obvious, but it really constitutes an issue that has not been fully addressed.
Secondly, the author insists upon the need to diagnose and treat depression. A patient’s decisions are often colored by depression, occasioned not only by illness, but by a host of other factors: feelings of abandonment, for example, or domestic travail. According to a published British study, he notes, 93 to 95 per cent of patients with suicidal thoughts are experiencing severe depression. Pain only exaggerates depression, especially in cancer patients. Moreover, recent medical studies indicate that suicidal feelings can be treated effectively with proper psychological intervention. (The New York State Task Force Report indicates that "treatment for depression resulted in the cessation of suicidal ideation for 90 percent" of patients.)
A third strategy for dialogue is to "oppose discrimination against the disabled and poor." Surely the "right to die" mythology abets prejudice against the disabled or poor. One can only surmise that the very poor are the last to seek second opinions from physicians.
A fourth strategy is to review what the culture of death is doing to people in Europe. In the Netherlands, the most extensive experiments in assisted suicide and euthanasia in the world are occurring. Statistics from the Dutch "Remmelink Report," dating from 1990, show that 2,300 died by voluntary euthanasia; 400 by assisted suicide; 1,040 from involuntary euthanasia, and 8,100 from deliberate overdoses (without the patients’ consent in 61 per cent of total cases). Moreover, of the 130,000 deaths in Holland in 1990, 9.1 percent resulted from either assisted suicide or euthanasia. Today, the author adds, "those over 16 can be euthanized for any reason; in certain circumstances, those as young as 12 can opt for euthanasia. Currently, the Netherlands is considering allowing euthanasia for infants, though some Dutch doctors have openly admitted to euthanizing infants already."
In 1996 this picture of the situation abroad was shared in testimony given before the United States Congress by the executive director of the American Suicide Foundation.
Strategy for dialogue, number six, is stressing the probability that assisted suicide, if legalized, would be quickly adopted here simply for the profit motive. As one physician, cited in a 1998 New York Times article, has put it: "Legalizing assisted suicide would become a cheap and easy way to avoid the costly and time-intensive care needed by the terminally ill." (In Oregon, one health insurance plan has placed a cap of merely $1,000 for hospice in-home care, whereas a lethal dose of drugs would only cost $35.)
The final suggested strategy is to emphasize without apology the "slippery slope" argument. No ethically minded person in America wants what is happening in Europe. As Pope John Paul the Great wrote in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, "True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another person’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear."
On with the dialogue. Be not afraid.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.